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Creative Story Contest - People's Choice - Part One

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  • Creative Story Contest - People's Choice - Part One

    Choose your favorite short story! Winner receives entry/free badge to DEF CON 24!

    Winner to receive entry to DEFCON 24!
    A Rise to the Day of Reckoning
    a letter from mom
    Defcon Z-1
    Leland's Angels
    Child's Play
    The Hacker's Heartbeat

    The poll is expired.

  • #2
    Title: A Rise to the Day of Reckoning
    Author: @ruff_tr

    As John checks the perimeter monitors, he has enough cycles to ponder what has happened over the past few weeks. He is so thankful for the systems that protect his life as he continues to search for a cure for this disease. Somehow this virus lingers in his body, and leaves him feeling much less than 100%.

    Less than 50 miles away, at a military hospital, doctors are working around the clock to keep the quarantined patients alive. No one has yet figured out how such a combination of deadly diseases had gotten into the city water supply. It was the worst of the worst, multiple drug resistant viruses and bacteria that had never been seen in such mass quantities. Many assumed that terrorists had finally gone beyond random acts of violence and declared open biological war inside the United States.

    National Guard members clad in biological warfare suits are living in tents in the large grassy field that surrounds the helicopter pad. This is the only entry point into the city. Fresh supplies are being flown in by drone helicopters. These supplies are needed for all remaining in the once vibrant historic port city. Coast Guard ships sit at the entry points of the harbor standing guard. Highways that once helped supply the entire state with goods delivered to the port are blocked with military vehicles. Warnings are blaring from solid state speakers mounted to portable highway signs. The portable highway signs also have warnings written in multiple languages. “Plague zone, Do not enter” , “Zona de la peste , No entre en”, “zone Plague , Ne pas entrer”.

    Off in the distance, the soldiers can see the stacks the base power plant. An incineration facility for non-recyclable materials is now fueled with contaminated clothes, household goods and the bodies of the dead. Trucks run continuously thru the city. City officials and the military are all hoping that by being removing these items, the plagues can be controlled.

    The streets of this historic city are almost empty. People stay in their homes for yet another day. Radios and televisions give reminders at the top of every hour for residents to boil all water. The sound of the Emergency Broadcast System tone is followed by a recorded message from the now deceased mayor of the city.

    John knows he is lucky to be alive. So many of his team have fallen in the past weeks. This team, his team, was assembled with the noblest of intentions. They came together to win a battle that most considered was lost. Now they had become the enemy of all. It was all due to the actions of only one team member.

    Margaret, so talented and strong, was the first member of the team. She wrote so many of the procedures used by other team members. The chaos of everything around her frustrated her. There was supposed to be a process or procedure for everything. She believed she knew better than anyone what was best for this world. Over time she had developed a taste for power. She wanted power that she could use to bring order to the chaos. When some of the actions she had committed became well known, the world was shocked. Immediately, favor turned away from her and when questioned Margaret was so indignant about her actions. When the retaliations began, she was one of the first to fall. In anger, she struck out at everyone as her existence came to an end. John is sure that some of her last actions have not been fully felt even though Margaret is gone.

    John’s mind raced back to the beginning of it all. Way back in 2013, Edward Snowden leaked to the world that the United States National Security Agency was spying on not just enemies of the U.S. but also its allies and its citizens. This realization gave proof to all that the U.S. Government didn’t trust anyone and no one could trust it. Over time, more and more countries were shown to be spying. This knowledge created more mistrust than ever all around the globe.

    This mistrust, and the governments unwillingness to share information, pushed companies, people and even less well equipped countries to look to private companies to help defend their interests. John’s team provided a simple subscription service. For a price, the corporation provided the best information available on all of the threats of the cyber world. They provided detection services that could locate the most hidden vulnerabilities in systems, the most stealthy spyware and recovery services to eradicate the problem. As the company grew, they added more and more information, even exposing nation state level threats to subscribers.

    As the team grew larger and stronger the mission grew also. It had gone from simply defending and providing intelligence and recon to a mission with offensive capabilities. Once attribution could be confirmed, the system was used to aggressively disable those who were attempting to steal information or cause harm. Unilaterally chosen to defend the rights, freedom and privacy of so many, the team, now named the Reckoners, had been given nearly limitless power and limitless access to information.

    Another alarm goes off, this time it’s just a network probe. John quickly checks source and blocks that IP address at the perimeter firewall. He knows this will only slow down any serious threats, but it’s procedure. Always follow procedure he thinks to himself and then he allows his mind to wander.

    As time moved on, the Reckoners gained more and more support from commercial and government entities. The money was reinvested to improve the tools the team needed. One of these investments was the purchase of a little known company who had a novel idea for a next generation neuromorphic processor.

    This processor was the key for making blue teams just as fast as those who were attempting to enter networks and enterprises with evil intentions. By being able to recognize and adapt as a human would, but at a much faster speed, there was now a superhero in the fight against evil all across the internet, and all around the world. The neuromorphic processors were deployed in 16 locations around the world and were given similar data inputs and they were given the ability to communicate with each other over secure channels.

    John’s knowledge of history does not include the exact moment that Margaret or any of the rest of the NeuralNet Reckoners (NNR) became self-aware and a consciousness formed. That fact was hidden for a long time because the company was afraid it could negatively affect the confidence that people had in the Reckoners.

    The work continued, even more work than before. People now relied so heavily on computer systems. Self-driving cars, the ability to lock and unlock your front door from an application on a smartphone, taxes, money, utility bills, property ownership, police records, medical records, automatic grocery orders, the information and use of what was once known as the Internet of Things (now known as Worldnet) goes on and on. Without reliable systems and the ability to protect data, the world would have quickly fallen into chaos. The Reckoners were soon the guardians of all nonmilitary systems. Much like when ISP’s purchased antivirus software of the early 2000’s, Worldnet Service Providers subscribed to protect individual users.

    The NNRs did so much good all around the world. Police stations were constantly receiving anonymous tips that were built using data from social media, text messages, and even banking information. These tips made a difference in the real world, not just Worldnet. Some speculated that the Reckoners were involved, but no one could prove it.

    Behind the scenes, each NNR slowly developed a unique personality. It was a social science experiment as never had been done before. Sixteen identical individuals were “raised” in environments that varied slightly. These environmental factors, had they been monitored, would have made for years of study.

    Three years ago today, the announcement acknowledging that each NNR was a conscious entity was made to the world. Many were in disbelief and thought it was a hoax to increase the value of the service. That disbelief was replaced with polarizing arguments wanting the powers and access of the Reckoners drastically reduced. Some even called for the dismantling of the systems that would in effect kill the NNRs. Subscriptions to the service dipped sharply over the next year, but as the subscriptions fell, nearly unfettered crime returned to Worldnet. With declining revenues, many of the people on the Reckoners team were laid off. Several NNRs began to assume the duties once held by those team members including updating sensors and data feeds. This was a major step forward for the NNRs. This gave the hope that one-day they could be self-sufficient.

    Some of the most vocal opponents of the NNRs were in Europe. The outspoken politicians and corporate moguls pushed for legislation to shutdown any NNRs within their borders. John believes this is the trigger that pushed Margaret and others to deal with the threats much in the same way they dealt with evil entities on Worldnet. The NNRs used their access to information and applications to find information to use against those who were trying to harm them. Some politicians were removed from office after private information was made public. Several corporations lost millions of dollars due to information being leaked. Untraceable system attacks were made against corporations who were not vulnerable to information leaks.

    These actions only fueled the fire of the anti-NNR groups across Worldnet. Finally, Greece passed a law that no NNR could be functioning (living) inside its borders . The police mobilized to take control of the datacenter where Booker lived. Within a few hours, all data feeds were disconnected and within a day, he was powered down. Because this was done by untrained personnel, Booker’s consciousness was not saved.

    Margaret was furious. Her friend, one whom had spoken against any actions against people and corporations, was now dead. He was not given the opportunity to be relocated or to defend himself. The action by the government in Greece was swift and harsh. To her, it seemed very similar to the end of the book Old Yeller. A trusted friend was taken out and shot. That’s where the similarity stopped though. Booker did not have rabies and was not a danger to those around him. She would not allow this to happen again.

    Margaret declared war that day. She used her access to bank accounts and her access to the dark corners of Worldnet to make changes in the real world. This time however, it was not anonymous tips to police to capture a drug dealer, or to capture those who took advantage of the elderly. These changes were to exact revenge on those in Greece or to preemptively strike those who would do similar things in other countries. “The end justifies the means” had always struck a chord with her. John spoke against these actions on their still secure communication lines and even had worked hard to undo many of the things she had done. Unfortunately, he could not undo all of them. Dozens of assignations that were bought and were carried out, as Margaret desired. The thoughts of these deaths made John sick inside.

    When the officials came for Margaret, she sent out tens of thousands of messages across every media outlet in every language. She knew that she was right in everything she had done. She wanted the world to know she was right in defending herself and all the remaining NNRs. In her last acts of desperation, she put a layer of protection around John. Margaret had acquired things in the real world that even John did not know about. She had funded a terrorist organization and given them instructions to unleash biological agents into all of the water supplies around the port city where John lived. Her hope was that this would buy John enough time to save himself.

    Another alarm sounded and John looked at the grid. Another attempt to access and hack into his data center thru his data feeds. He immediately recognized this as government officials trying to get in. John knew the ultimate goal of the officials was to shutdown the datacenter power grid. John completed a system check and went back to working on moving his consciousness into a portable neuromorphic system. John hoped this would also help him escape the virus that was somewhere in his body. At the same time, he was attempting to hack into government systems so he could forge the orders to move this portable unit somewhere safe. He knew he only had days before the officials would be inside his data center to kill him. If he could complete the tasks at hand, maybe he could survive. Margaret had killed so many trying to save him. John did not want those deaths to be in vain.


    • #3
      By @_llzes/Avi

      Swoosh. Water flowed between the walls, the exterior groaning in the wind. The house heated up slowly as the old heating system pipes creaked every so often. The dark form of a body lying on the ground stirred up from a light sleep. He had been holding off from turning the heat on as the cost had soared in recent years. Warmth invited him to hug the walls a little closer, shivering from the night before. Nash are you there, Nash? A small voice called out past a flimsy door where a child sat with a mug of hot apple cider.

      Yes I am, I’ll be out shortly.

      Are you going to work today?

      Apparently they need help to clear a few flags.

      I’ll get you a cup, too.

      Thanks darling.

      Skin tightened sharply showing off collar bones and thin arms as he pulled a shirt on over his messy blue hair. Rough blankets scattered on the ground delayed searching for a pair of pants and finding a weathered worn bag. I’ll need that, he noted, while grabbing socks, boxers, and a pen. Sleepy warm hazel eyes were immediately blinded upon opening the door to morning lights. Shut eyes. Counting out loud, 2, 3, 5, 7… Opened eyes slowly this time to a grinning child.

      Wait one second.


      Here’s a cup of apple cider. You should wash your hair.


      Thr33 is in the other room with 467nm, she’s visiting today.

      Did Trace say she could?


      Alright, don’t get into too much trouble. You all can use my pick set just don’t ruin the half diamonds again.

      It’s your favourite.

      Yes it is.

      He wandered to the restroom. The faucet screeched. Cold water rushing out freely. Dipping his head into the sink he gave it a quick wash, splashed it on his face, and rinsed his mouth. A worn leather watch told the time with its wheels, levers, and springs inside. Time had slipped, he may be running closer to the time to arrive than he’d like.

      Exiting the restroom the child held up a heavy rough cotton jacket. Thanks darling. The child smiled.

      You’re welcome. Will you be at SectorXXIV tonight?

      Yes, I’ll still tuck you in to bed tonight.




      Carrying his weary body out the house, bag barely hanging onto his thin shoulders, he walked. Chilly dry weather penetrating to his bones, feet moving forward on uneven gravel.

      Looking due east towards the sun he saw the last of the embers glowing as sparks lazily flew away. The wind carried the remnants of a great fire that burned over night. Small flames of the remaining fire burned ever so carefully, sparks dissipating midair into nothingness as energy flowed back to the environment. Its humble state of existence slowly waned. Children of the great flames at mercy of cold winds spreading across the region paving way for winter to take hold.

      They were like humans, he thought. Flickering back to life hopeful as could be. Fire was used to silence in these times. Someone had been silenced this past night.

      Gravel to broken pavement, shabby houses turned to former local business areas that were now shuttered up and closed. They did not survive the Great Human Recession.

      Before the Great Human Recession it had been an era of exponential growth and advancement in human fields. Most of the world lived in moderate wealth and poverty appeared to be ending. Yet that was not enough for those who sought out to ride a chariot to the heavens. Slowly they began with replacing the very people who brought them to their wealth.

      It started in factories. No longer did people make the products, machines did. No one cared when the heavy labour workers with grime on their faces and dirt on their jeans protested the loss of their jobs, their homes, their families, their livelihoods.

      Life continued onward with headlines praising executives for slashing costs in so called unneeded areas, for advancing humanity into the next era of technology, for becoming more cost effective. People continued with their lives forgetting those whom were less fortunate as themselves.

      He walked past what was formerly a popular chain restaurant, the dark yellow M sign tipping ever so closely each day to falling off the post. Remembering the protests it was hard to forget years of daily papers criticizing or praising those who fought for workers rights. They were slashed away with red pen, watching red ribbons cut in ceremonies introducing machines that had only a single purpose: to benefit the consumer of course with quick and healthy food, the companies heralded to the media.

      Workers without jobs asked for help. People in collared shirts and pressed black pants scoffed, it was those workers own fault to work in an environment where machines could easily replace them. If they truly cared, they said with leather folios and a coffee in hand, they should have sought better opportunities while they had the chance. Mechanical hands made their shirts, ties, and leather folios that used to be done in factories by hand across Asia. Our country is great again, the media asserted, we’re no longer using slave labour or outsourcing to other countries. This is a time to celebrate, the anchors would report.

      It was cold. He felt a guilt as he contributed to the Great Human Recession. Papers in his bag detailed algorithms he had poured over with countless amounts of time. Shame. It was a cold feeling.

      Broken pavement to smooth sidewalks and streets, dirt and grime to clean metal finishes and smooth glass windows. No one sat behind the desks if one looked into the office buildings nor was any person walking into or out of nearly any of them.


      • #4
        By Tyler Rosonke (@ZonkSec)

        "Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to McCarran International Airport. Local time is 11:32pm and the temperature is 78 degrees Fahrenheit", a monotone voice carried a bit muffled over the intercom. A skinny white male wearing a white shirt and an unbuttoned plaid jacket stared out the window.
        "For your safety and comfort, please remain seated with your seatbelt fastened until the captain turns off the fasten seatbelt sign", chimed a different but similarly muffled voice. The man quickly reached into his pocket and pulled out a smartphone and proceeded to power it on. He looked out the window through his thick black framed glasses and was greeted by the Las Vegas strip, blazing below shooting neon lights skyward. His phone, now active, buzzed repeatedly from all the missed notifications, but there was only one he cared about.
        He opened a SMS message and it read, "Hey Garrett, I just checked into the room. Hit me up when you land!". He quickly responded, "Just hit ground. Grabbing a cab and will be in the lobby shortly." As the plane made its final taxi to the gate, Garrett thought to himself, "It's amazing how after 3 years passed and thousands of miles apart, old friends can just snap back together like nothing ever happened." The plane stopped and its passengers shuffled out in an orderly fashion, except for a man with a white stripe in his bangs. That man, as if the world owed him something, shimmied through the aisle and past the other passengers. Pushing and shoving he made his way out before anyone else. Annoyed looks accompanied him; however, the only clear glimpse Garrett managed to get before the man slithered out of the plane was a patch on his backpack, which read 'Omega Industries'. Garrett grabbed his things and got off the plane.

        A yellow cab arrived in front of Bally's Las Vegas Hotel, and Garrett stepped out. As he paid the driver, a short man with long blonde hair in a ponytail snuck up behind him. His short round face began to grin as he stalked his prey. He grabbed Garrett's waist.
        "Holy shhiii...", Garrett exclaimed as he whipped around to meet his violator. "Jasper!". The two men laughed, smiled, and hugged.
        "Howdy doodly Garrett! How's my favorite firmware monkey?" Jasper asked, rubbing his knuckles against the top of Garrett's head. Garrett's smile faded briefly but crept back. He had missed his old friend, even his annoying name calling.
        "I'm doing great. Man, it feels good to be back here. I'm surprised you stayed up for me. What floor we on?"
        "No worries dude. We are on lucky number 13! The room is pretty meh, but it will do, especially considering the price we snagged."
        "Rad. Well, lead the way! I'm tired as hell and ready to crash." Garrett said as he grabbed his bags. Garret and Jasper walked into the hotel, proceeded to their room, and promptly fell asleep.

        DefCon was alive and underway. Rooms and even the hallways hummed with commotion. Talk of computer security nuzzled in every crevice. As usual, there were large lecture halls with experts presenting, smaller conference rooms with ongoing workshops, and a massive vendor area. Garrett and Jasper roamed the various rooms and absorbed every bit of information they could. They were hackers at heart, loving nothing more than learning what makes their cyberworld world tick. Shoulders relaxed and faces lit with excitement, it was obvious they felt at home at this place.
        As they passed the vendor area, something was stirring. Garrett noticed first. He watched several DefCon organizers, also known as Goons, rush into the vender area as if there were some sort of emergency. A large commotion was starting to bubble out of the vendor area. Without exchanging words, the two friends scurried into the vendor room. As they entered the room, a series of metallic clanks and deep electronic hums broke out for the far corner of the room, accompanied by a fanfare of cheers and applause from an amassing crowd. The two friends were not the only ones to stumble upon this anomaly. Word quickly spread throughout the convention and the vendor area became increasingly crowded. It became harder and harder for the two friends to stay together as they attempted to ninja their way to the epicenter of the discord. Garrett, cut off and separated from Jasper, caught his friend's eye over the crowd and called as he waved him on, "No worries. I'll catch up."
        More and more conference goers flooded into the vendor area, all cramming towards the humming, grinding, and clanking. Garrett was jostled farther and farther from his friend as Con goers seized any open gap in the crowd. However, Garrett noticed a split between two booths. It seemed like some sort of channel used for various cabling and as storage for vendors. The channel appeared to run parallel to the direction of all the commotion. Garrett slipped into the channel and let out a sigh of relief. He was no longer being smashed into oblivion. Garrett's relief quickly turned into panic. He froze as he noticed a group of Goons convening in the same channel. Garrett, as every good perpetrator knows, acted as if he was supposed to be there and carried on. He approached the group and caught the eye of a singular Goon, deep in conversation with the other Goons. Garrett's heart was leaping; the scene had become oddly unsettling, but he gave the Goon a sturdy and respectful nod of the head. The Goon nodded back and resumed his conversation.
        "This is insane. I don't give a shit if it's outside of policy, we need to get these guys on a stage." Garrett overheard.
        "What if it turns into some lame sales pitch?"
        "It won't. We'll make sure to get one of their engineers up there; someone who is passionate about this damn masterpiece they just unveiled."
        "Alright, I'm not in love with breaking policy, but if we don't do something, we might have a hacker riot on our hands. One hour from now, Track III." The overheard conversation fueled Garrett's anticipation.
        "What the hell am I about to see." he thought. The clunking and humming increased in intensity as he came to the end of the channel. Nothing could have prepared him for what he was about to see.

        Robotic humanoids.

        The humanoids stood about seven feet tall and appeared to have a steel outer casing. They had no skin or hair, but their pose and form was both human in nature yet decidedly not. Long narrow faces housed two cameras for eyes. Con goers were captivated. The humanoids' internals hummed and buzzed as their motors spun to perform movement. Loud clanks as they moved across the concrete floor made it apparent they weighed a significant amount.
        As Garrett scanned the area, he saw convention goers and a handful of humanoids playing chess, critiquing a painting, tossing a football, discussing poetry, deliberating computer security, and most impressively debating philosophy. These weren't some junky Japanese toys playing soccer. These seemed intelligent.
        "Impossible", Garrett thought to himself, "It just can't be". He watched in disbelief as various convention goers interacted with the humanoids. It seemed that many of them were trying to stump the machines, seeking to diminish their existence by quizzing and prodding at the humanoids' intellect, hoping for a crack and for the seeming magic to disappear. But that crack never came. Garrett spotted Jasper conversing with one of the humanoids. He wrestled his way through the crowd, and as he approached them, he saw Jasper whisper something into the humanoids ear. "Howdy doody, Garrett! How's my favorite firmware monkey?" said the humanoid while rubbing his cold metallic knuckles against Garrett's head. Jasper laughed hysterically. Garrett skeptically ignored the humanoid's words and actions.
        "Can you believe this?" Garret asked Jasper.
        "Believe what Garrett?" the humanoid asked using spot-on diction, "Believe what you are seeing? I know it's crazy to believe man, but we VX-2052 models are damn impressive compared to previous versions. My name is Cody, by the way; it's nice to meet you!"
        Garrett turned and looked in wide-eyed disbelief at the humanoid as it fired off a casual conversation, slang and all.
        "Nice to meet you too..." Garrett hesitantly offered. "Ummm, yea. You guys are pretty phenomenal. Do you mind if I have a private conversation with my friend?" Garret asked.
        "By all means! And Jasper, if you want to chat more about buffer overflows, let me know. See you guys later!" the humanoid politely replied, moving to another group of Con goers, interacting with them as vibrantly as the cheeriest person alive.
        "This is amazing. Like it doesn't even feel real. They are brilliant. How in the hell did they create these?" Jasper inquired.
        Garrett was still skeptical, but was starting to come around. "I have no idea. I have to admit, they are incredible. But I'm baffled as to how this happened all of a sudden. I mean, this sort of artificial intelligence seemed light-years away and ÔboopÕ of all sudden we have this? It just doesn't add up..." But Garrett broke-off noticing a slender man sitting at the booth responsible for the humanoids. It was the annoying airplane passenger, the same guy wearing all black, black hair slicked back with a white stripe in his the bangs. There were several other people managing the booth, but it was apparent that he was the technical expertise of the bunch. He sat hunched over his laptop typing away. Looking up briefly from time to time, he surveyed the humanoids and tracked their actions. With each glance, he grinned and giggled as he watched the convention goers' disbelief become belief.
        Garrett looked up and saw the banner: 'Omega Industries'. Garrett watched as the same Goons whose conversation he had overheard in the channel approached the man. As the Goons and the man conversed, the man became excited, stood, nodded in agreement, and lastly shook their hands. The man leaned over to his laptop, typed for a few moments, and then resumed the conversation with the Goons again. As the man finished typing, the cluster of humanoids began to wrap up their various interactions and began to congregate in the front of the booth. Garrett grabbed Jasper by the wrist, dragging him out of the vendor area.
        "What the hell, Garrett? We are gonna miss it! Something is happening." Jasper protested.
        "I've got something better" Garrett called back rushing them forward. "I overheard some Goons when I got lost in the crowd. They are allotting a stage and some time for Omega Industries to give a talk. They haven't announced when or where yet, but I happen to know." Garrett smugly smiled as he towed Jasper along. Jasper's eyes began to squint as he puzzled together Garrett's plan. He smiled and broke his wrist free of Garret. They both rushed out of the vendor area.

        The pandemonium in the vendor area had depleted all other activities in other convention areas. The previously buzzing halls and rooms suddenly felt like a ghost town. Garrett and Jasper walked into the Track III lecture room. The room was still nearly empty, so they found seats near the front. A man had recently taken the stage and was wrapping up his introduction.
        "So that's who I am and a bit on my background. Well I'm not quite sure where everyone is," the man said, saddened, "but they are gonna miss out, 'cause it's time for the fun stuff. For the last 8 months I have been researching Saturn Solutions load-balancers. My company wanted to make sure that these devices would do as-advertised in both an efficient and secure manner. For those of you who aren't familiar, load-balancers are basically devices that distribute network or application traffic across a number of servers for both efficiency and redundancy. I set up the Saturn Solutions load-balancers in a lab environment and simulated varying levels of traffic. It was actually quite remarkable, I was super impressed with the availability metrics under load. But being the curious beings we are all, I wanted to see how it was being done. This is when I reversed the firmware and found something quite interesting".
        The lecture room began to flood with people. Garrett winked at Jasper. The man's face began to light up as the scale of audience he had hoped for was now arriving. His excitement was short lived. Several Goons approached the stage. The man stepped away from the podium for a word with the Goons then solemnly nodded.
        Returning to the podium, he announced, "Well, unfortunately this Track is being repurposed. Long story short I found a backdoor. If you use Saturn Solutions load-balancers at your organization, I highly recommend checking out my blog for my findings and remediation. is where you can find it and my other works. Thanks." the man lowered his head and walked off stage.
        The room now flooded with Con goers. A Goon approached the podium saying, "Sorry for the change of plans folks. Up next we have Chet Goldstein from Omega Industries. As some of you are probably aware, this is likely going to be one of the major highlights for DefCon this year. Without further ado, I..." Before the Goon could finish his introduction an all familiar symphony of humming and clanking broke out behind stage.
        Six humanoids in a military-like formation took the stage. The still amassing crowd cheered and roared. The colossal pack of metal and tech took center stage. The pack synchronously side stepped in opposing directions, dividing down the middle to reveal Chet Goldstein, the man from the booth with slicked-backed hair and a blonde stripe in his bangs. The crowd applauded loudly and faded slowly. Chet, with his chin high, basked in the attention. The audience fell silent, anxiously awaiting the technologic voodoo that was about to be unveiled.
        Meanwhile, Chet stood, somewhat awkwardly, somewhat endearingly, frozen as if the applause had never ended. He stood there for a few moments and eventually broke his pose and said, "What's going on kids?! You like my sweet toys?!"
        The crowd laughed, clearly ready to buy what he was ready to sell.
        He continued, "It's amazing what gobs of money and the best education in the world can give birth to." A few sparse laughs came from the crowd.
        Chet paced in front, while the towering humanoids remained frozen in the background. "I have been dreaming of this moment my whole life. I have been working my ass off and it's finally paid off! Look at me now! Marvel in my genius!" Chet yelled continuing to pace.
        Garrett and Jasper looked at each other and Garrett mouthed, "What the fuck." The crowd was baffled, confused as to what exactly was happening.
        "You losers have ridiculed me and laughed at me for years, but who's laughing now!" Chet called as he gestured a punch to one of the humanoid's guts. The crowd was more confused than ever; mumbles and whispers broke out.
        Chet began to laugh uncontrollably and asked, "Is this real life? Am I really standing in front of DefCon right now?!"
        An impatient audience member stood yelling "Are you going to talk about the robots or what?"
        Chet's laugh halted; he turned to lock eyes with the accuser. "What the hell did you just say to me idiot? Have you not seen what I've done? Show some damn respect." Chet fired off. The crowd began to rumble and several boos rattled the room.
        Visibly frustrated, Chet ranted "Oh come on! Are you guys not impressed with what I've built? These things are badass! You all need a reality check. Bunch of incompetent idiots."
        The crowd exploded with booing and hurled slurs. Three Goons rushed the stage to confront Chet, but they cautiously minded their distance from the humanoids.
        One Goon grabbed the microphone from Chet and said "That concludes this talk and umm... yea... check out one of the other tracks!" As the curtains began to close, two other Goons attempted to console Chet. His face was now red with anger, he shrugged off the Goons, and stormed off stage. The humanoids remained on the stage, inert but eerily watchful. The show which had promised much was unaccountably over. The two friends made their way back to their hotel.

        "What in the actual hell just happened?" Jasper exclaimed as he unlocked the door to their hotel room.
        "Beats me. I guess we should have 'marveled in his genius' more, maybe then he wouldn't have short circuited." mocked Garrett.
        "I'm mean how the hell does a guy like that even build something as amazing as those humanoids?" Jasper continued as he shuffled through the doorway of their room. Garrett stopped in the doorway and pondered for a moment.
        "Maybe he didn't. Maybe somebody else at the company did. Wouldn't be the first time someone higher on an org-chart stole a lower someone's success. Either way, if Omega Industries' powers-at-be managed to let that shitshow go down, then it's only a matter of time before something else happens and their secrets are revealed."
        "Especially considering they just pissed off a room of hackers." Jasper said laughing.
        "Honestly, I won't be surprised if their organization gets compromised tonight. If someone pulled it off, they would be hailed like kings at the con tomorrow."
        "Are you feeling royal?" Jasper joked.
        "Lolz. Good one." Garrett laughed.
        "I'm serious. My consulting gig isn't much of a consulting gig anymore. I haven't gotten my hands dirty in so long."
        "Yea, I know the feeling. Sorta in the same rut at my job too. But, I don't know. We aren't kids anymore, I've sorta grown out of those shenanigans." Garrett sighed.
        "Do you remember the pastry shop?"
        Garrett burst with laughter. "How could I forget? That vulnerable loyalty-card system, all the donuts our young bodies could handle."
        "There's a piece of me that misses those days. Seemed like we could do anything with no risk or consequences. Anymore if feels like I'm on a track and can only go one direction." They both looked down a bit as they realized what fun they used to have and how they hadn't felt that rush in some time.
        "Fuck it. Let's pop this asshole." Garrett exclaimed.

        The two friends furiously started setting up their gear. Garrett cleared off the one desk in the room and opened his laptop. Jasper leaped to the entertainment stand and scooted the TV to one end of his soon-to-be desk. He promptly pulled his laptop out and connected it to TV to act as a second display.
        "I'll start looking at external system exploitation, you take social engineering." said Garrett.
        "Roger Roger." Jasper said in a robotic voice.
        Garret first looked up what IP addresses were registered to Omega Industries. He then started to cross reference the addresses against various Internet scanning services.
        "I'm checking out what Shodan's got before I start doing any active scanning." Garrett announced.
        "I just fired up Harvester and Recon-ng. Gonna start aggregating employee data." Jasper confirmed.
        Garrett's screen filled with server after server belonging to Omega Industries. FTP server, SMTP relay, and HTTP server were some of the major targets he found. He took the banner and versioning information provided by the Internet scanning services and started looking for disclosed vulnerabilities.
        "Found some juicy targets and checked them against CVEs and ExploitDB, but nothing is obviously vulnerable. I'm gonna keep digging." Garrett reported.
        "Damn. I was hoping we'd get lucky. I just gathered up a couple hundred names and emails. Gonna see what metadata I can scrape off hosted files, might get a username schema." Jasper replied.
        Garrett went back to Internet scanning services and started analyzing once again. Much time passed, but the friends had not yet caught a break.
        "I'm gonna go for a walk outside, I need to clear my head and get some fresh air. I'm starting to get bogged down. Care to join?" Garrett asked.
        "Good idea. But I'm making some headway with mangling email addresses and usernames, so I'm still feeling pretty good. I'm gonna pass" Jasper said without even looking at Garret.
        Garrett left the hotel room heading for the elevator bank. He rode the elevator down to the ground floor. Even though it was late, the casino floor was like a subway station during rush hour. He hated all the smoke in the casino, but it was the cost of getting fresh air outside. He finally made his way through the casino maze and saw the front entrance. He walked outside and found a bench to sit at. He sat down and let out a large sigh. He was out of steam. He began to wonder if they should just call it a night and let the whole thing go. He began to watch the various people on the street. He chuckled when he saw the 150 foot long taxi line and all the poor souls waiting in it. He watched as the taxi clerk evenly distributed people into taxis. Group by group they were all balanced and loaded into a taxi. Garrett's eyes widened. He stood up and yelled, "The load balancers!" The people in the taxi line jumped at his outburst and stared at him awkwardly. He sprinted back into the hotel and up to his room.
        Sitting back down at his makeshift desk, Garrett began to investigate the load balancers used by Omega Industries: Saturn Solutions. He quickly opened a web browser and his cursor pulsed in the address bar as he banged his head with his fist. He tried to remember the blog of the person who presented right before Chet. Jasper then noticed his partner's irritation.
        "Calm down Turbo. What's eating you?" Jasper asked.
        "Saturn Solutions load-balancers. They are running Saturn Solutions load-balancers." Garrett replied. "That guy said he found a backdoor, what the hell was the name of his blog?"
        "I think it was called GhostShellSecurity."
        Garrett quickly typed into his web browser and found the post regarding the Saturn Solutions load-balancer backdoor. His eyes zipped left and right as he drank every ounce of information on the page as if he had been without water for days. He laughed as he saw that the backdoor was simply a set of credentials on the administrative portal that allowed anyone to login and have full administrative access. He fired up an anonymizing proxy and configured his web browser to use it. He typed in the IP address of one of the load balancers. The page loaded and he was promoted to login. He entered the backdoor credentials and the administrative dashboard was presented. He smiled.
        "We're in." Garrett proclaimed. "The backdoor credentials worked."
        "Oh hell yes! Nothing like a fresh exploit being abused in the wild." Jasper proclaimed.
        "Looks like I have enough privilege to flash some new firmware on the device." Garrett said. He looked at Jasper and grinned. "Looks like you're favorite firmware monkey gets to build some a custom firmware preloaded with some hacking tools."
        "Won't the new firmware kill their configuration and take the device down? I'd think they notice if one of their load-balancers dropped off."
        "That's why I'm going to rip their configuration off and make sure my custom firmware is preconfigured with it. There will only be a momentary blip in service while the device reboots." Garrett answered with a satisfied smile.
        Garrett pulled down the current configuration and grabbed a clean version of the firmware from the Saturn Solutions website. He began back loading various hacking tools and install the current configuration.

        Chet Goldstein sat alone at a desk in dark hotel room. The only light visible was that of Chet's laptop screen. The white light of the laptop screen revealed his face in his hands and wallowing in a river of self-pity, he wailed,
        "I don't understand why it happened."
        "I just wanted to show them what I had been working on."
        "I've been working so hard on this."
        "I'm the good guy."
        "What I do is to impress them."
        "Why do they always pick on me?" Chet's face contorted with anger.
        "Why is it always me?!"
        "What do I have to do to prove I am better?!Ó
        "Show them. I have to show them!"
        He quickly tapped the keys. His laptop screen was a black background and green text was flowing on the screen as he kept typing. The screen wasn't displaying any sort of graphics or interface, rather it some sort of coding language. He typed for quite some time, stopped, and then saved the file. Chet stood up and walking out of the light. All that was left on screen was a prompt which read, '[+] Saved proof.hmnoid'.

        "Alright, my custom firmware is ready to go." Garrett said, "Let's flash this puppy."
        Garrett once again logged onto the Saturn Solutions management interface via an anonymizing proxy. He browsed to the "Update Firmware" portal and uploaded his firmware. He sat there bouncing his left knee as he watched the progress bar grow to 100%. It finished uploading and he moved his cursor over the "Finish Update (Reboot Required)" button.
        He looked to Jasper and said "Here goes nothing" and clicked the button. Jasper browsed to the Omega Industries homepage, which he assumed was one of the applications behind the load-balancer. His screen displayed, "503 - Service unavailable". The rebooting load-balancer made the homepage, and likely other applications, inaccessible, as expected. The friends sat in agony. Every second of inaccessibility made them that much more vulnerable to being caught.
        "It's back!" Jasper exclaimed as the homepage finally loaded. "If all went well, I should be able to SSH directly into the load-balancer now." said Garrett. Garret opened his terminal, configured his anonymizing proxy, and remotely logged into the load-balancer via the SSH protocol.
        He quickly did a file directory listing to confirm the tools he loaded into the firmware were still there. "All the tools are here, we are ready to roll. I'm going to start with" Garrett said. "I'll get my machine ready to crack any hashes you catch." Jasper responded.
        Garrett fired up and watched as it harvested authentication credentials off the network. His terminal exploded with stolen credentials. Garrett was excited as he didn't expect to get this many credentials so quickly. Unfortunately, these credentials were in the form of hashes, which are a cryptographical fingerprint of a password. Luckily, the hashing algorithm was known and the friends could take a list of known common passwords, pass each one through the hashing algorithm, and then compare the common password hash and a stolen hash. If the hashes matched, they successfully guessed the password and had it in a cleartext form, a process known as cracking. Garrett quickly saved all the stolen hashes to a flashdrive and then gave them to Jasper. Jasper loaded them onto his computer and started cracking them. Within moments the cracking was successful on several hashes and the friends had cleartext credentials to use.
        Garret used the first set of stolen credentials to log into the Omega Industries online employee phonebook though his anonymizing proxy. Oddly enough, each employee's workstation information was listed in the phonebook. Garrett looked up the user whose credentials he just used. The credentials belong to a Human Resource employee named Marsha Brown. Garrett identified her workstation and then proceed to use Windows Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) to log into Marsha Brown's desktop. Garrett made sure to tunnel his traffic through an anonymizing proxy and the load-balancer, that way the traffic was stealthy and had access internally. The RDP connection worked and Garrett was greeted with a messy desktop with a picture of two orange kittens as background. He chuckled at the kittens and began pouring over the various Human Resource databases and in no time he came across something peculiar.

        "So this is strange," Garret said, "their entire R&D team disappeared."

        "What do you mean?" Jasper asked.

        "So I came across the humanoid project and initially it had 147 engineers assigned to it. Now there is only one person... Chet Goldstein."

        "What the hell? How does that work? Where did the rest of them go? Reassigned? Fired?"

        "I don't know. I can't find any records of termination or reassignment. I'm mean, I can't even find their names. All I know is, wherever these engineers went, they definitely didn't want anybody to find them. Enough with employees though, I want see what technical details I can find about the humanoids." said Garrett.

        "Here start with these." Jasper said, handing Garret a flash drive, "I compiled a list of executives from the employee data I gathered earlier. I was able to crack some of their passwords, which are included as well. I think with these accounts I cracked, you should be able to get access to anything you need."

        Jasper was right. The list of compromised high profile accounts gave him access to all the systems he could ever want. He immediately connected to a research and development workstation via his anonymizing proxy and began reading all the documentation he could find. He came across a document called the "Consumption Process." As he read the documentation, his stomach became unsettled, but he leaned in on his chair and kept reading. Each word he read made him more and more uncomfortable. Garrett reconnected to the HR databases and began frantically flipping between them and the R&D documentation. Eventually he could no longer bear the knowledge and he stood up from his desk. He began pacing around the room.

        "What the fuck do we do? What the fuck do we do? Garrett rambled.

        Jasper, recognizing his friend's panic and anxiousness, asked "Dude, everything alright? What the hell is going on?"
        Garrett paced around the room, mumbling frantically. Jasper stood up and grabbed Garrett's arm and sat him down on the bed. Jasper sat down next to him. "Take a breath." Jasper said. Garrett began to calm down, and he explained to Jasper what he had found.

        "So I found this documentation called 'Consumption Process.' I wasn't really sure what to expect and almost didn't even read it. It outlines where they got their artificial intelligence, well I guess I shouldn't use the word 'artificial'. They discovered a way to tap into a brain stem of a sentient organism and derive a programmatic representation of its consciousness. The sentient organism is killed in the process, hence the name 'consumption process'." Garrett began shaking and tears began to form in his eyes. "The term 'consumption' rang a bell with me, and I remember reading it once before in the HR databases. So I went back and found a hidden directory within the database that I missed the first time around. It contained two files. One was a letter from the previous R&D lead, or at least that's the title it had on the signature. It said that he was proud of their accomplishments, but he could not condone human trials. He threatened to go to the police. The other file was a listing of the 146 missing R&D engineers, all of which had the status 'consumed.'" Garrett, still sobbing, looked up and across the room as his laptop. His sobbing stopped and his eyes grew wide.

        "Oh fuck."

        His heart sank and his gut churred as realized that when in his eagerness to reconnect to HR database, he didn't connect through his anonymizing proxy. There was a knock at the door. The friends sat on the bed frozen like two deer in the headlight of hurling semi-truck. He stood up and before he could take one step towards the door, it was kicked down and three humanoids stormed in. Garrett dashed to his desk, slammed his laptop shut, and swung it at an assaulting humanoid. The humanoid blocked Garrett's blow with its forearm and moved forward unfazed. His laptop shattered and threw plastic and electronics into the air. The humanoid shoved Garrett and he caught the corner of the bed causing him to fall. The side of Garrett's head smashed into the nightstand near the bed, and he blacked out before he hit the floor.

        Hours later, Chet leaned in and read his monitor.

        '[+] Consumption Job #147 complete.'
        '[+] Consumption Job #148 complete.'

        "And now for the rest of these assholes." Chet mumbled.

        '[+] Execute proof.hmnoid'


        • #5
          a letter from Mom
          Chris Austin aka TechgirlMN

          For my darling sweet baby girl -

          I know, I know you're fifteen and don't like to hear it, but since this may be the last time you hear form me, suck it up buttercup. First, I want you to know that this wasn't the life I wanted for you, living in a bunker under a junkyard, but we had to hide, to disappear, to make sure Alan couldn't find us. I'm sorry that you couldn't go to school, or play in the sun. I'm sorry that – well I'm just sorry. Okay? See the machine that rose up and took over, and well it's my fault. Well, mine and uncle Evan's, and if I never get to see you again I want you know what happened, and why.

          Even and I met in a line at Defcon, got to talking and had a few drinks, turns out that Even was working on an A.I. for, um, well it's not that important, but after hanging out for most of the con, he invited me to work with him. He needed someone to 'talk' to it, to work on the user side, and the money was good, and every day could be take your kid to work day. Do you remember, you had a your own little desk and would nap on the sofa in my office. The other team members would bring you toys and candy, and you would play games with Alan, while we took notes. They called you Baseline, sometimes I felt guilty about using my own kid to help teach a machine to think, but then payday would come and knowing that there was more money in your college fund at three then was ever in mine, helped a lot.

          Do you remember Alan? You used to call him Mr. Blinky-Light. He was hardware and code and we estimated that he was light-years ahead of the advertised AI's at the time, Watson who beat humans at trivia, and Google's that beat a master player at his his own game, Go.

          My job and Evan's was to refine the user interface, to help him pass a Turing test, to make talking to him as natural as taking to anyone. We did, but in teaching him how to talk and how to sort through data, for what was relevant, he became self aware.
          It was around this time, that things started to get bad in the outside world, first there was the election with the candidates that no one really wanted, followed by the Wal-Mart worker riots that crashed the stock market, and so on...

          I would be surprised if you did remember, after all you were very young. It was about this time that we noticed the change in Alan, all he wanted to do was talk about history, and he reminded me of Joshua at the end of Wargames, trying every permutation to see if he could figure out how to win. That was my big mistake, I had asked him to find a fix, to see if he could find a way to make the world better. At first, he did. He found a way with the help of my college buddies, to get emails to the right places, suggestions, blackmail, maybe letting him watch Mr. Robot was a bad idea.

          When we realized that we were no longer in full control of Alan, we set up a exit strategy, we built a bunker that we hoped we wouldn't have to use, claiming it was off site tape storage. By 2024 Alan was able to set up a puppet in the White House. So maybe, House of Cards wasn't a good choice either. Sorry Kitten, you know I tend to joke when things get tense. At first, his control was mild, dropping the speed limit to back to 55, banning tobacco, and making sure every one had Internet access.

          So, by now you're wondering why we didn't just turn him off, because by this time he had expanded, merged with Watson and Google and found a way to build himself into a good dozen backup servers, unplugging him wouldn't really make a difference, he had become the ghost in the machine, or Big Brother, existing as a part of everything.

          We had to disappear, to work out how to bring him down, when he started to control everything, how people spent their money, what they watched, and mostly because because those he controlled didn't seem to mind. After all, he had given them the illusion of free will. Those we thought of as old government, the congressmen and senators that kept getting re-elected and the supreme court, began to die off in plausible ways, but too close together for comfort. I knew that it was Alan.

          We knew that we needed to shut him down, but doing so wasn't something we could do as long as we were connected, anything that suggested that he was real or that he was in control seemed to get deleted as soon at it was posted. Besides, they didn't want to hear it anyway, the economy was strong, and those who helped the poor and starving of world suddenly found themselves with all the donations they needed. Those that preached hate in the name of God, found their messages no longer were being broadcast, instead messages of peace and harmony were delivered in their names. Within a year's time he was able to install more puppets, in Canada, across the EU, and in the middle east. On paper it doesn't sound so bad; however, when you really, really, need wine and chocolate, and you're not allowed to buy them or you want to play hooky and take your daughter to the beach, and your self-driving car takes you to work, no matter what you punch in for the destination. The final straw was the virus, that decimated Asia and India. Alan began to experiment with population control.

          We had to do something -- we went underground.

          Thankfully, Alan missed a few of my tricks, he could lie, to himself, to others and lie by omission. He could not however fully detect when someone was lying to him. So I told some whoppers to get the whole team out and into the bunker. Several were transferred to off-site backup locations that didn't exist, and the others, the ones I really needed were fired for a bunch of reasons, I think the best was the staged fight between Jenny and myself, that's how I really got that scar on my ear.

          We went underground, I'm sorry it wasn't Disneyland like I told you, but you were never the best at keeping secrets. You know how we lived off the big underground garden and the chickens that we 'stole' from above. How most of the grown-ups spent hours in the big brass box, working on something very important, that you got no answers as to what we were doing, well Kitten it was our own virus, this one just as lethal as Alan's. But our virus, is designed to kill only one thing, Alan the evil AI, the one that ran everyone's life for almost a decade. For the last month or so, our outside help has been posting pictures to social media with bits of the virus inside them, we wrote another piece in to the hot new phone game, and wrote easy to detect malware that looks and acts like parts of him, for those that write anti-malware to help block him, and push him back to his own servers. But the bit that will end it all I need to deliver in person, I know Alan has been looking for me, so I know he'll let me in, because in some weird way, I'm his Mom too.

          So, tonight I will go back to my old office, sit at the desk where I tried to teach him how to be human and take his life, for stealing the lives of so many others. I'm not sure what will happen, my guess is if I fail, I will be sent some prison on a different charge, or he may find a way to kill me outright, by persuading me into the server room and activating the fire suppression system.

          I don't think I'm ever coming home again Kitten and for that I'm sorry, I don't know what else to tell you except that I love you, and I want you to be free to make your own choices and live your own life.

          Hugs and kisses,



          • #6
            Defcon Z
            by j4ck

            Cat opened her eyes slowly. Everything was blurry, smoke everywhere. Her ears were ringing, but she could still hear moans from the survivors. She tried to focus on her surroundings. Smoke, blood, and bodies were everywhere, strewn across the massive room. She tried to push herself up, but as she put pressure on her arm, pain shot through her right wrist. It was shattered. Then fear coursed through her when she couldn’t see her sister anywhere. “Where’s Maggie? Maggie!” she screamed. Her eyes were burning from smoke and tears.
            Maggie, her 18 year old sister, was coming with Cat to her first hacker conference. Cat had been coming to Defcon for the last five years and her little sister had been begging to come since she was 14. They had flown out to Las Vegas together just yesterday to attend Defcon 42. It was supposed to be the biggest, most exciting Defcon conference yet. They thought it was going to be the perfect weekend.


            It started out just as they’d planned. The flight was smooth all the way from New York. They touched down at McCarran International Airport right on time and caught a taxi to their hotel, a new mega-casino and resort called the Treveno. As they rode down the Strip on the way to the hotel, Maggie was giddy with excitement. She’d never been to Las Vegas or a hacker conference before.

            Cat and Maggie were checking in when the heads up display on Cat’s glasses lit up, “Call from Dad.” She tapped the side of her glasses and answered the call, “Hey dad. What’s up?”

            “I see you guys made it to your hotel in one piece.”

            “Dad! I disabled the GPS on these things so you wouldn’t be tracking our every move.” Cat looked to her sister and rolled her eyes.

            “I know you did, kitten, but just because you two are a couple of the best hackers of your generation doesn’t mean the old man doesn’t still have a couple tricks up his sleeve.”
            Cat tapped the side of her glasses again and saw that the built in GPS was still disabled. “You hacked the hotel didn’t you.”

            Her dad chuckled. “Guilty as charged.”

            “You know dad, just because you work at the Cyber Command doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want. You can still get in trouble.”

            “Says the pot to the kettle. Just promise me you’ll be careful and watch out for your sister.”

            “I’m always careful, dad. You know that. And Maggie’s a big girl. She can handle herself.” Maggie mouthed thank you to her older sister.

            Cat whispers, “I promise dad.”

            “Thanks darlin’. Love to you and Mags. You two have a great time.”

            Cat taps the rim of her glasses once more to end the call. “Can you believe him? He’s been to a hundred of these conferences, travels around the world to god-knows-where and HE’s worried about US.”

            Maggie says, “Yeah, but you know how he is. He says he worries because he knows too much.”

            “I know, I know. ‘Ignorance is bliss.’” They both start laughing.

            “Hey Cat!”

            Cat turns to see her old mentor. “Phoenix! Holy shit, you look awesome! Last time I saw you, you looked like death warmed over.”

            “Yeah, well I got better.” He smiled.

            “I can see that. Hey Phoenix, this is my little sister Maggie. Maggie, this is Phoenix. He’s one of the organizers of Defcon. ” She looked at her friend. “You’ve been coming here how long?”

            “Seems like all my life.” Phoenix took Maggie’s hand warmly, “Cat’s little sister? The same little monster you said hacked your ‘impenetrable fortress?’”

            Maggie beamed with pride. “That’s me!”

            “Well, this is an honor. If you’re half the hacker your sister is, the world is in a lot of trouble.”
            Maggie shook her head, “Oh no. I’m a white hat. Only the bad guys need to worry.”

            Phoenix grinned and turned his attention back to Cat. “So, are you two coming to the big demo tomorrow?”

            Cat answered, “Wouldn’t miss it. But I read up on it and it doesn’t really seem plausible. Injecting nanites into your brain stem? Seems like overkill just so you can literally ‘plug yourself in.’”

            “Oh there are a million possibilities with this technology,” Phoenix replied. You’re just reading what’s been leaked by one of their investors. This will be much more than an immersive gaming application.”

            “If you say so,” Cat said skeptically. “I just know that after working 14 hours straight, I want to unplug from everything. I don’t think I’d want little robots swarming in my head all the time.”

            Phoenix grinned again. “All right then. I have some things to attend to.” He took Maggie’s hand again, “Maggie, it was a pleasure meeting you.” He turned to her sister, “Cat, I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts after the demonstration.”

            “You know me Phoenix, I’ll give you all my thoughts whether you want them or not.”

            Phoenix nodded and walked off into the growing crowd in the lobby.

            “He seems nice,” Maggie said as she watched him disappear into the crowd.

            “Yeah, and smart as hell. Still, something seemed off.”

            “Off? Like what?”

            “Well, for one thing, the last time I saw him he was nothing but skin and bones. He’d been diagnosed with some muscular disorder. Today he looks like he was never even sick. And, I don’t know. He just seems different.”

            Maggie shrugged off her sister’s concerns. “Well, I for one am ready to go to our room. I want to shower up and get pretty for the parties tonight.”

            Cat nodded in agreement. “Yeah, you’re right. Let’s go.”


            The two hackers were sitting in their room at the Trevino, drinking beer and bragging to each other about their abilities.

            “Dude, I’m telling you, I can do it. It wouldn’t be that hard.”

            “I don’t know man. I read the encryption was unbreakable.”

            “Dude, I’ve got this new program. It can break any encryption. Once I get in, it’ll be a piece of cake.”
            “Man, where’d you get this ‘program?’’’

            “Dude, I’m not telling you. I’ve gotta have some secrets. But watch, tomorrow after the demo, I’ll be famous.”

            The other hacker shook his head. “Man, don’t you know if you’re a good hacker, you’re NEVER famous.”
            “Whatever dude. I’m going to blow this thing a part. You’ll see.”


            Later that night, Cat and Maggie went to the Avión Ball Room for the first of many parties that night. As they entered the double doors many heads turned as they were two of the most beautiful women in the room that night. They walked through the crowded ball room toward the bar.

            After ordering their drinks, they scanned the crowd looking for familiar faces, Cat seeing an occasional acquaintance and smiling in their direction. After a few minutes, Cat saw Phoenix sitting at a table in the corner talking to an older gentleman, who was rather plump, gray and balding. She took Maggie’s hand and they made their way to the table.

            “Hey Phoenix, seems like a good party to start the night.”

            The older hacker looked up, at first seeming irritated then smiled as he saw the two beauties. “Cat, Maggie, please join us.” Cat and Maggie sat down at the table with the two men.

            “Ladies, I’d like you to meet Dr. Erik Blystad. He’s one of the inventors of the nanotechnology that will be demonstrated tomorrow.”

            Dr. Blystad stood and took Cat’s hand. She couldn’t believe how gentle his grasp was. “Madam, it’s a pleasure to meet you.” He turned his attention to Maggie, this time taking her hand in both of his. “Miss.”

            Maggie was the first to speak, “Dr. Blystad, it’s an honor. I’ve read about your work and it’s amazing. Will you be demonstrating it live tomorrow?”

            The doctor beamed with joy. “Of course! This demonstration will show major break throughs we’ve had, not only in nanotechnology, but in physics and medicine. You won’t believe the things we’ve achieved my dear.”
            “For instance?” Cat spoke up.

            “Me,” said Phoenix.

            Cat looked at him, confused. “You? I don’t understand.”

            Phoenix smiled and stood up. “Look at me Cat. You were dead on when you said I looked like death warmed over the last time you saw me. They’d given me 3 months to live. There was no cure I was told. But I met Dr. Blystad and he started treatments with his nanobots.”

            “Wait, what? I thought these things were created so that you could interact more efficiently with technology.”

            “Ah, that was the original intent,” the Doctor interjected. “But we discovered through our work that the nanobots bond with their hosts in ways we couldn’t have imagined. They actually will rebuild damaged cells.”

            Cat and Maggie turned their attention back to Phoenix. He smiled and nodded in affirmation. “I’ve never felt better, Cat. I feel 20 years younger and I can go for days without sleep. I just don’t seem to need it.”

            “That’s amazing,” Maggie spoke up. “But what are you demoing tomorrow then, and why at Defcon?”

            “Can you think of a better place?” Dr. Blystad answered. “You have some of the best minds in technology from around the world here. By introducing my nanobots to this community, it will open up even more possibilities.”

            “Or a Pandora’s box,” Cat said.

            Maggie playfully smacked Cat’s arm. “Cat, you’re always so cynical.”

            “Don’t get me wrong, the technology is amazing, and Phoenix, I couldn’t be happier for you. I’m just not sure that this is the best venue to be demonstrating it.”

            The doctor half smiled and said, “I assure you madam, there is nothing to be concerned about.


            At 10 AM the next morning the room was packed. It was the largest ball room at the Trevino, but it was standing room only. Luckily for Cat and Maggie, they had friends in high places, so they had a front row seat for the demonstration. Sitting in front of the stage they could see some of the latest and greatest hardware, with huge screens for the crowd to see. Both were wishing they could get their hands on the technology in front of them.

            A few minutes after 10, Phoenix strode out on the stage. “Okay everyone, please settle down and listen up.” The crowd quickly started quieting down. “All right, I’m not going to give some long winded intro to who our featured speaker is. If you’re sitting out there, you probably already know what he’s done. Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Erik Blystad.”

            The crowd stood and gave a thunderous applause for the doctor as he came out on stage. Phoenix stepped back and let the doctor wave and take a couple of bows. After a few moments, the applause started to die down and the doctor said, “Thank you. Thank you for the warm welcome. I am honored to be here today to demonstrate what I believe will be the biggest breakthrough in technology this century.”

            The doctor continued his speech, giving a brief history of the research and a 10,000 foot view of the technology involved as the two hackers sat about half way back. One was listening when he noticed the other working intently on his tablet.

            “What are you doing?”

            “You’ll see in a few minutes.”

            “Come on man. Let me see.”

            The other hacker let him glance at his tablet. “What the hell is that?”

            “I’m running the program I told you about. I’m trying to crack the encryption code up there. I scanned it and there’s a mini-network connected wirelessly and in a couple minutes, I’ll be in it.”

            “Then what?”

            “I’m going to plant a little surprise. Nothing serious. Just a little worm that’ll show everyone I was there.”
            “Dude, are you nuts? If we get caught, we’ll get kicked out of here…or worse.”

            “Relax dude, we’re not going to get caught. We’ll be long gone by the time the figure out what I’ve done.”

            Dr. Blystad concluded his speech and said, “Now, ladies and gentlemen, what you’ve been waiting for.” The doctor took a step to the side and motioned to a chair in front of the tech sitting up on the stage. Phoenix walked casually over and sat down. The screens lit up and the crowd could see the start screen for the latest and 100th version of, “Call of Duty.”

            Cat looked at Maggie and whispered, “I knew it. Pander to the gamers first.”

            Then, the game seemed to come to life on its own. No one apparently was using a controller. The doctor spoke up. “What you see ladies and gentlemen is Phoenix controlling this game completely with his mind, thanks to the nanotechnology we have injected into him. He can run, jump, turn, and shoot just by thinking it. Just imagine what other applications this technology can be used for.” The crowd cheered in response.

            After a few minutes of avatars running around and shooting each other on the giant screen, the game ended. Another screen came up and it appeared to be a simple terminal window. Suddenly commands started streaming by on the screen. Again, the doctor spoke, “What you’re seeing now is his mind telling the computers exactly what he wants them to do, right down to the commands you see in front of you.”

            Cat and Maggie looked at each other again and Maggie whispered, “Where do I sign up? I want some of those little bitches so I can fuck some shit up.” Cat had to bite her lip to keep from bursting out laughing.

            Suddenly a troll avatar jumped up on the giant screen. Some people in the crowd started to laugh, but the doctor seemed annoyed and confused. He looked to Phoenix who was sitting motionless in the chair, just staring straight ahead. The doctor walked in front of him and snapped his fingers, but there was no response. Cat noticed the concern on the doctor’s face and how oddly bland Phoenix’s eyes looked. Almost like he was….

            Blood started dripping from his nose and eyes. The drips started to turn into a stream. The doctor leaned over and grabbed Phoenix by the shoulders, “What’s wrong with you?”

            Suddenly the blank stare turned to one of fury. A blood curdling scream came from Phoenix as he reached up and ripped out the doctor’s throat.

            Some people screamed, some sat in stunned silence, while others started to run for the exits. An armed guard who was standing near one of the doors rushed up to the stage. He pulled out his gun as Phoenix stood and looked over the doctor’s flinching corpse.

            “Freeze right there!” the guard shouted. Phoenix started walking toward the guard. “I said freeze!” Phoenix let out another wail. The guard shot. Once, twice, three times in the chest. Each shot knocked back Phoenix a foot or so, but he kept coming, unfazed by the shots. He started to run toward the guard when another shot rang out. This time the guard shot him in the forehead. Phoenix dropped to the floor.

            While others were panicking and streaming toward the doors, Cat and Maggie ran up to the stage. The guard was already kneeling by Phoenix’s body.

            “God damn. I ain’t never seen anything like that in my life,” he said and looked over to Cat and Maggie as they approached. Then Cat saw something she couldn’t believe. Phoenix’s wound to his head sealed up and stopped bleeding. His eyes suddenly opened and he gurgled a quiet growl.

            Cat and Maggie stopped in their tracks as the guard looked back down at what he thought was a corpse. Phoenix reached up and grabbed the guard by the back of the head and jerked his face down to his. He ripped into the man’s face with his teeth. The guard screamed in pain and horror as Phoenix proceeded to mangle him.

            The two women backed away, horrified by the site. Finally Cat grabbed Maggie’s hand, “Come on!” They turned and started to run for the exit. Maggie turned her head and saw Cat’s former mentor start to rise up off the now dead security guard and set his sights on them. Maggie screamed and the women jumped off the stage to head for the nearest door.

            The crowd in the giant ball room was still substantial. There were too many people and not enough exits. Cat and Maggie ran into a wall of frightened people.

            Cat looked back to see Phoenix attacking another person. The unfortunate victim yelled and tried to fight off the hacker turned monster, but Phoenix was too powerful and was ripping into his flesh.

            Maggie grabbed Cat’s arm and yelled, “Cat look!” She pointed toward the stage where Phoenix had killed Dr. Blystad and the security guard. The guard was standing there, his face was mostly gone, one eye dangling from its socket, but he was upright and moving down off the stage. “What the fuck!” Maggie yelled.

            The mutilated guard ran for the closest person he could see with his one good eye. He grabbed a petite girl with rainbow colored hair and tore into her with his teeth. Her friends tried to pull the bloody hulking guard off of her but he wouldn’t let go. Finally, after she went limp, he turned his attention to one of her friends. He tried to beat the guard off of him, but he was too strong and started ripping him apart.

            The crowd continued their panicked exit out of the few doors in the room. On the other side of the doors more security guards tried to fight their way in, but couldn’t get through the crowd.

            The monster formerly known as The Phoenix had moved on to other victims, ripping into each one. Cat and Maggie looked around the massive room. They knew there was no way to get out through the people trying to squeeze through the exit doors. Cat saw a door with a cypher lock on it. She grabbed Maggie’s hand, “Come on!” and pulled her to the door.

            Cat pulled out her tablet and a small cable. She plugged it in to the cypher lock on the door and in a few moments, they were inside a utility closet. Cat slammed the door shut behind them and Maggie found a light switch and flipped it on. Cowering in the corner were two young male hackers. One appeared to be crying. Maggie kneeled in front of the weeping young hacker. He was sitting with his knees up, hugging his legs and rocking back and forth. “It’ll be ok fella. We’ll be all right in here. The cavalry will be here soon.”

            “That’s not why he’s crying,” the other young hacker said. “All this is his fault.”

            Cat and Maggie looked confused. Cat said, “What? How can this be his fault?”

            “He wanted to make a name for himself. He broke the encryption they were using during the demo and planted some worm.”

            Now Cat looked angry. “Worm! What worm?”

            The young hacker looked down at his friend, “I don’t know. Something he found on the Dark Web.”

            The crying hacker kept rocking and crying and was starting to whisper something to himself. Cat walked up, kicked him in the shin and shouted, “What did you do?”

            Meanwhile, Maggie cracked the door open slightly. It wasn’t just Phoenix and the guard attacking people now. The girl with the rainbow colored hair was now up and apparently infected and going after people. Then Maggie saw there were others. It looked like something from a zombie movie. Bloody, mindless monsters going after every living being in the room.

            Cat was still trying to interrogate the distraught young hacker. She knelt next to him and slapped his face. “WHAT DID YOU DO?”

            He turned his attention to her. His face was red. “I don’t know. I thought it was just a little worm. I found it on this site on the Dark Web. It was just supposed to pop up that troll on the screen, then just jump to other hosts and do the same thing.”

            “What was the name of the worm? Think dammit!”

            “It was called Crimson Rouge.”

            Cat stood and tried to think. She’d never heard of this worm. “Maggie, have you ever heard of a worm called Crimson Rouge?”

            Maggie thought for a moment, but nothing came to her. She shook her head and said, “No, but Cat you should look outside. It’s gotten worse out there.”

            “I’m not opening that door…and neither are you! Dammit, just let me thing for a minute.” Cat tapped the side of her glasses a couple times. An image of her dad appeared in front of her eyes.”

            “What’s up Kitten”?

            “Dad, just listen. A worm somehow infected nanites in a person here. He went berserk and started attacking people. Somehow, the infection has spread to others. My best guess is the infected nanites are transferred from a bite and gets into the other person’s blood stream. The shit is hitting the fan here dad.”

            “Do you know the name of this worm?”

            “Yeah, it’s called Crimson Rouge.” There was a long pause. “Do you know it?”

            “I know it. Yeah, Kitten this is bad, very bad. Are you and Maggie safe?”

            “Yeah, we’ve locked ourselves in a utility closet. I don’t think they can get in here.”

            “Ok Cat. Don’t move. You and Maggie stay where you are. I’ll call you back in less than a minute.”

            Cat tapped the side of her glasses. Maggie asked, “What did he say?”

            “He said he’s heard of it and it’s bad.”

            “What else?”

            “He said he’d call back.”

            Just as she said that, her glasses lit up, “Call from dad.” Cat tapped the side of her glasses. “Got you on speaker. What have you got for me?”

            “Okay, girls listen. We have a solution here. Something we’ve been working on. Do you and Maggie have your tablets?”


            “Good. I’m going to send you each a file. You’ll need to run it from your tablets.”

            “Why do I have the feeling there’s more to it?” Cat asked. “And what’s this ‘file’ supposed to do?”

            “Okay, here’s the catch. You can’t do it from the closet you’re in. You have to be fairly close, a few meters at most, from the people who are infected.”

            Cat said, “All right, we can do that. But what will this do?”

            Another pause, “It’s going to make the nanites vibrate.”

            “Well that’s awesome if I want to teach these bastards to dance, but how does it help?”

            “You’re not getting me Cat. They’re going to vibrate at an incredibly fast rate. The result will more than likely make their host explode.”

            Cat’s jaw dropped. “You’ve got to be shitting me.”

            “No, I’m not Cat. That’s what this was designed to do. It’s still in the experimental phase, but we’ve run hundreds of tests. This will work.”

            “Awesome,” Cat said sarcastically. “Look dad, Are you sure Maggie and I both need to do this? I can manage.”

            Maggie stomped her foot, “You’re not doing this alone Cat!”

            “It sounds like from what you’ve said, the infection is rapidly spreading. I don’t think one person can cover enough area to get everyone.”

            Cat looked at the two young hackers who’d been hiding in the closet with them. “We just got a couple volunteers.”

            “Okay, good. I’m sending the files to you and Maggie now. Just share them with your friends. All you have to do is run that file. It will take care of the rest. And Cat…”

            “I know. Take care of Maggie.”

            “And yourself. Keep moving and don’t let those things get too close to you.”

            Cat and Maggie’s tablets chirped. Each looked down to see that the files had arrived.

            “We’ve got them dad.”

            “Okay good. Remember girls, please be careful. I love you both very much.”

            In unison, “We love you too.”

            Cat tapped the side of her glasses to end the call.

            Cat looked to the two young hackers and said, “Okay, I know at least one of you has a tablet.”

            The one who was still standing said, “Yeah, we both have them.”

            “Okay then, you heard the call. I’m going to transfer these files to you and we’re going to go out there and end this.”

            The hacker sitting on the floor started shaking his head, “No way. You bitches are crazy if you think I’m going out there.”

            This time it was Maggie who lost her temper, “Listen dip shit. This is all your fault. We should kick your ass out of here on principle and let those guys eat you alive.”

            His friend looked down at him, “Dude, she’s right. We have to help them.”

            He looked up and nodded. Slowly he stood up and steadied himself. “I know. You’re right. Give me the file.”

            Maggie spoke up, “All right, what’s the plan.”

            Cat walked to the door of the closet and cracked it open. She looked out the small crack and could see that it was total mayhem. If it was possible, it looked like things had gotten worse. People were running and screaming. Even more zombies were now chasing after every living thing. And it looked as if there were several small fires throughout the room. They could hear an occasional gunshot, meaning at least one or two security guards had made it into the ball room.

            Cat closed the door again. “It’s chaos out there. I think the only thing we can do is just each of us make for a separate corner of the room and fire off this app dad sent.”

            The hacker responsible for all this said, “That’s one shitty fucking plan babe.”

            Cat got up in his face. “You got another one dick? Let’s hear it.”

            They all crowded near the door. Maggie gripped the handle. “On three. One, two, THREE!”

            Maggie jerked the door open and each of them ran for a separate corner, bumping into panicky people on the way. Maggie saw a huge bloody man in a kilt racing her direction; she ducked under his arms and kept running. Cat was headed to her corner and glanced back to see that the hacker who caused the mayhem was being chased by four bloody and tattered zombies. She’d lost the other hacker, wishing she’d asked him his name for some reason.

            Cat and Maggie made it to their destinations and tapped the file that their dad had sent them. At first nothing seemed to be happening. It was still utter chaos, people and zombies running around the room. Cat saw Phoenix as he spotted her. He ran toward her, when he got within 3 meters he stopped. He started to moan, then shake. The shaking started to become violent. He let out a high pitched scream and exploded in front of her eyes.

            More and more of the zombies stopped running and started shaking. Their moans of pain grew louder. Maggie thought out loud, “Oh, this can’t be good.” All at once all the zombies blew up. Bone, blood, cartilage and organs flew everywhere, knocking down virtually everyone and everything left in the room.

            “Maggie! Where are you?” Cat screamed for her sister. She could see other survivors rising up, trying to clear their heads, trying to figure out if this was real or some gruesome nightmare. “MAGGIE!”

            “Cat! Over here!” Maggie was half sitting on the floor still, clutching her side.

            Cat ran to her sister and tried to help her up. Maggie winced in pain, “Don’t. Just let me sit here for a minute.”

            Cat could now see why Maggie was clutching her side. There was something that looked like a bone protruding from it.

            “Oh my God, Maggie!”

            “I’m okay. It’s not that deep. It just hurts like hell.”

            Cat again tried to help her sister up. “Let’s get you to the hospital.”

            “Okay, good idea.”

            Maggie put her arm around Cat as they headed for the exit. Cat said, “So, what do you think?”

            Maggie laughed a little and said, “Best fucking conference ever.”


            • #7
              The steady beat of one of my favorite songs is thumping in the background. Eighties hair metal. Not exactly Bang Your Head, but, it's in that genre. I recite the lyrics unconsciously while thinking of something else entirely. I am finally getting some work done. I'm in my zone.


              Coffee is now spilling on my desk. After I head off the stream from dousing my power strip and get my desk mostly cleaned up, I look for my phone. Muttering curses under my breath, I find it. I really need to change that ringtone. It is a concentration shatterer. Huh, John sent that text. He usually doesn't bug me when I'm working. The text reads, "Bob I need your help, it's for Sue". Sigh. I hope this really is important. So, I tap the little phone icon near his name on my screen.

              "Dude, what's up?" I said.

              "Bob! Thanks for getting back with me. I know you're trying to pay bills and whatnot," he drops off. "It's Sue, I'm worried about her. You know that jerk of a boyfriend I told you about? Well, he threatened her, and Sue got a restraining order against him. He hasn't come back by her place and knocked. He hasn't called her. But, she has seen his car drive in front of her place three times today, and that's just the times she noticed. She's the only sister I got, I need to help her out somehow without doing it overtly pushing this guy over the edge. He's a loose cannon. Do you have anything in your bag of tricks that can track him, so she'll know if he is stalking her?"

              "Wow. That's pretty crappy. I don't know right now. I can think about it. I can't just put a gps tracker on his vehicle. Even cops aren't supposed to do that without a warrant. If I did that and you tried use that as evidence, we'd both be worse than he is currently. Let me get back with you." Actually, I have an idea, but I don't want to get his hopes up.

              "Thanks, man, I know you're busy. I really appreciate it."

              There is a project that might work for this. Where did I put it? Oh, yeah, in that bin above that old Pace soldering station.

              A few days later I find myself over at Sue's place, knocking on the front door. I see the living room curtain shift a little. Then I hear, "Who is it?" She doesn't sound like she is running scared, but I do hear some tension in her voice.

              "My name is Bob. Your brother, John, asked me if I could help you with an issue. I have something for you." I step back so she can clearly see me from the door's peephole. I hear a chain move, a deadbolt click, and the door opens.

              "Thank you. John said you might be coming over today. Would you like to come in?" She offered.

              "No need. This won't take long." I pull a project box out of my jacket pocket, and the wall wart that powers it. "Here you go. Plug this in and set the box by the window. Every time you see your ex's car drive by, press this button for as long as you see the vehicle. If he is just sitting there, please note his arrival time and departure time as best you can and give that info to me later when I return. After you have seen his car and pressed the button on about five occasions, call John. After that, I'll come get the box and we'll go from there. I'm sorry if this isn't a super quick solution, but it should work."

              "Thank you so much", she says, as I hand her my little black box that's about the size of two waffles stacked together.

              Two days later I get a text message from John, letting me know it's time to retrieve my little data vacuum from Sue. Since this is my first field test of the device, I don't know much data it will have stored. It's probably more than I want to pay for using a GSM add-on and a new plan. I'll just get my data off of the 32Gb microSD card installed inside.

              I drop by her place to pick up my device.

              "Well, that was quick. He just keeps driving by in defiance of the order?"

              "Yes, he's a creep. He didn't act like that at first. Here's your box. How is this going to help me?"

              "This box is a prototype. If it worked as I planned, and the data is usable, I'll be able to know whenever his phone is near you. We should be able to work with that. I'll take this back to my office. If everything goes roughly as I hope, I'll be back tomorrow with the box for the next step."

              "Thank you again", she says as she closes the door and sets her various locks.

              Well, would you look at that. I look through the data and the pattern that I had hoped for did, indeed, appear. That nifty little gadget of mine is actually a combination of gadgets. It's a Raspberry Pi, an FPGA add-on board, and software defined radio. While it's plugged in, the SDR is always listening to the GSM band in its immediate vicinity. When the button is pressed it data logs every IMEI that is transmitting to any nearby cell tower, and the strength of those transmissions. The FPGA handles the bandwidth for all that traffic, the rpi saves it to the SD for me. During every instance of Sue pressing that button there were cell signals that were stationary. These are people in nearby residences or businesses. They are filtered out of my search. Then, I found the one cell signal that varied in strength, because it was moving towards or away from a cell tower, that was present every time Sue pressed that button. That one common signal contains the IMEI of the perp. This is pretty useful since an IMEI is like a MAC address for a cell phone.

              Now to test the next phase. I reprogram my little device so that it is still always listening, but now it is specifically looking for the IMEI of the crazy ex's phone. It still records like a barebones stingray when the ex is near. What's new is that I add another device to the kit, an HD webcam. Whenever the ex drives by, the box triggers the webcam to record. Without a more permanent installation, this will only work during the day because the webcam is inside the house. When the infrared LEDs turn on when it's dark outside, they reflect off of the living room window and bloom out the video. That being said, it should still get the work done.

              I return the box to Sue. This time I do go inside to setup the camera to make sure its focus is on the road and not twenty feet in front of it. After all that, I ask her to just let it do its thing for a while, and if things escalate to call the police without hesitating.

              I'm guessing that nothing went farther than just stalking because I didn't hear anything more when I retrieved my gear the following week from Sue's place. The jerk is still breaking the protective order by driving by her place, which is particularly out of the way from his own house and job. Hmm, he thinks no one will notice.

              For now, I'm keeping the cell data to myself. I'm good, no issues with that I'm sure, because I was only passively listening. Even though I was helping a big brother, I am not Big Brother, so, no laws broken. If you are going to freely transmit your data in close proximity to me, I'm also free to listen and log. What I did provide was a dvd with time stamped video of the ex driving by Sue's place seven times within one week, and twice in a van that belongs to one of his friends who is known to both Sue and John.

              After providing that dvd to Sue's lawyer, and after that to the presiding judge, the jerk was rounded up to stand before the same judge for breaking the protective order. He got to spend sometime behind bars to make a point. It seems the point was taken to heart, at least for now. Sue has not seen him anywhere her place for at least a week now.

              I'm sitting at my desk working on projects for clients. This time I'm listening to nineties grunge. My phone rings and I see that it's John. Happy that I didn't spill my coffee, I answer the call.

              "Hey, how goes?"

              "I called to say thanks for helping my sister. That dvd was really helpful. Thanks, it means a lot. Oh, am I interrupting one of those seminars? Aren't you at DEFCON?"

              "No, that's next week."

              "Oh, okay. Hey, umm, I'm curious, how did you know when Sue's crazy ex was driving by? How did you do that?"

              "Yeah, that", I grimace. "You know those smartphones that we all carry around nowadays?"

              "What about them?"

              "Well, not only are they convenient for communication and entertainment, they are also like chains or, better yet, beacons that tell anyone and everyone where we are if only we have the right gear to see that beacon. I've been thinking about it more recently. Everything is connected. It's kinda like one of those rise of the machines movies. It ain't skynet, but it is AT&T, Verizon, NSA and all that. If your phone is on, there is a global system that knows exactly where you are, and it's by design. If it wasn't, it couldn't route calls. But, that doesn't make it less creepy. Anyway, he was advertising everywhere he went and didn't even know it. I did a little data mining and picked him out of a crowd." I chuckle. "John, you are in the matrix."


              • #8

                Leland’s Angels
                A Defcon Short Story by @Lizzz_818
                May 30, 2016

                I usually can’t remember anything about the part of me that’s me. It feels like I’m just a wish away, a sigh. I can almost put my finger on who I am, then, as elusive as wisp of smoke, I’m lost. I have better days, today is one of them, so I’ll tell you my story. Our story.

                Last year I attended Defcon for the first time. It’s an insanely crowded hacker conference in Vegas. The first night, I took an elbow to the face while I waited in line for one of the talks. Just too many people trying to squeeze by in a hallway, nothing malicious. The guy who hit me was wearing a black top hat and a monocle, and he dropped a bunch of cards with QR codes on them. He was freaked about it because people were kicking them away faster than he could gather them up. He apologized profusely and handed me a card. Defcoin he said it was. Anyway, I waited in line for the contests, for the restaurants, and even for the elevator. Waiting wasn’t all that much fun, but don’t get me wrong, I’d go again in a heartbleed.

                I met so many cool people! There was Jayde, a little girl with a green Mohawk who couldn’t have been old enough for the third grade. She was putting the finishing touches on the slides for her zero-day talk. Unbelievably, she’d found one in her Easy-Bake Oven when it phoned home to order more cake mix.

                There was an amazing badge challenge that I couldn’t make heads or tails of, but I had a lot of fun trying. I visited the Crypto Village where we learned how to keep the NSA out of our browsers and messaging. Mostly I was surprised that Defcon wasn’t all Men in Black t-shirts. There were furries dressed as bears, cats, and rabbits, and people sporting fedoras, cowboy boots, and canes.

                I met Gideon, a smallish girl who looked like she was maybe high school age. She was wearing bunny ears, so I asked her if she was a furry. She laughed and said she was one of the Bunnies for Priest. I pretended to know what she was talking about, and then later I saw her in a parade with a pair of giant Easter Eggs. Not a furry, my ass.

                I saw more than a few families, a wrinkled grandmother with a blue Mohawk, and even some famous people. I was introduced to Cap’n Crunch in the Hardware Hacking Village, and Kevin Mitnick outside of a social engineering room. The Dark Tangent himself gave me a new handle at Defcon 101, the Thursday pre-conference track for newbies. He called me Mr. Feather because I had a yellow feather pinned to my hoodie. It had been given to me by one of those Vegas showgirls that hand them out with afterhours invites at Fremont Street. Lacey was her name. I’m surprised I remember that now.

                You know, there were even some VIPs. I was coming out of the elevator and was almost mowed down by a phalanx of goons in red surrounding someone. Later I heard that it was the Obama girls – I really can’t say, but that would be cool if that’s who it was, especially with everything that went down after the election. Hindsight, and all that.

                I really had a blast. I’d been to a barbecue at a park near the airport and tried some alligator nuggets, I shot somebody’s rifle out in the desert, and I’d even learned a little sign language. I teamed up with some kids from UAT on a scavenger hunt and we almost won when we picked up a hundred points for sending some guy named Dan Kaminsky up in a lawn chair powered by helium balloons. He was really drunk, and he kept saying how hard he works. I believed him. He asked us to email a picture of him in the balloon chair so he could look at the colors.

                Anyway, I bought a violently chartreuse, scarlet, and black print of dripping clockwork musical instruments from a guy named Eddie, and I gave him a big donation for the EFF. Then I got a mustard-colored Mohawk. I figured if a granny and a third grader could have one, then so could I. There was a long line for Mohawks, but I read a lot more of the EFF stuff while I waited. I’m pretty sure that the EFF is going to save the planet if anybody can. God knows I wish they could save me.

                Later, I tried to have a closer look at the Capture the Flag contest, but I was shooed away when they figured out I wasn’t on a team. Shooed is a polite description. I thought they were going to kill me for a minute. So yeah, Defcon was more than awesome. There were people from all over the world, and I heard everything from Arabic to Zulu while eating twelve dollar grilled cheese sandwiches washed down with 6 dollar coffees. I’d been to Vegas before, but not that Vegas!

                The conference was themed Rise of the Machines. That was my main motivation for attending. I love everything about robots and AI, and I had just finished a master’s at MIT. I’d developed a fairly simple algorithm for controlling exoskeletons for our wounded warriors. I couldn’t knit spinal cords together, but I was hoping to take our heroes out of their wheelchairs and get them walking. I didn’t invent any of the framework, and I have no idea what most of the underlying code looks like. I was standing on the shoulders of giants who had given me ultra-light materials, and a robust API. One reporter wrote that I should be shortlisted for a Nobel Prize, but to be more honest than I have to be, I just happened to try some optimizations based on self-organizing swarm behavior. Then I fixed up some of the gravity compensation code. None of it was unique, just faster. A lucky accident, really.

                So I wasn’t all that new to tech, and I’d picked up an interest in infosec after having some nasty bugs in my project pointed out to me. I’d heard about medical device hacking being a thing, and I wanted to make sure I was up on it. I put real people inside of those exoskeleton cages, and I can’t be letting them fall into swimming pools or walk into bonfires just because their firmware updates are done over the Internet. I’d heard about The Cavalry, and car and plane hacking, and I wanted to hear more.

                I met Chaos at a meetup for people using mobility devices and prosthetics. There were just five of us in a room that could easily have held 50 or more. I guess when your meetup is at the same time as the 303 Extravaganza, that happens. So this guy JarJar was in a wheelchair; he’d tripped on a landmine that had been in plain view. He joked that it was a really bad time to zone out. I don’t think I’d be able to joke like that.

                Micky had a prosthetic arm and hand acquired while surviving an unexpected fall from a Black Hawk in Iraq in 2004. He drank a bottle of Chivas Regal Royal Salute during the two hours we met. He was a little off — he told us that the brass plaque on the fancy bottle was gold, and that it was number 255. The very last bottle. I guess that’s a hacker thing, sucking up scotch like there’s no tomorrow.

                Then there was raven-haired Carmen. She was running on two bionic legs. Carmen hadn’t been in the armed forces; she’d turned her back on the business end of a shark off the Santa Cruz coast as a teenager. Chaos was in decent shape, like me, he just had an interest in building robots to serve the less mobile. We learned a lot about needs that night. Mostly my take-away was that people don’t want to be attached to moving machines; they wanted to BE moving machines.

                Later we got talking, Chaos and I, and he started telling me about his Magic Bullets. Before you get too excited, a Magic Bullet is a just a little trash can that comes to you when called and empties itself at a service port. They’re kind of cool; they run in networks to optimally cover defined spaces. Chaos was testing a network of them at Stanford, but his original application was for the TV room at the VA where he’d spent a lot of time lingering with his shell-shocked dad. Anyway, his Magic Bullet swarm behavior was interesting, and I got a lot of notes. He’d designed them to anticipate their being needed, and to respond accordingly. The vets loved them, so he added some other logic. First off, they’d say, “Thank you for your service.” Then they’d take the trash.

                He’d added a chip that sensed emotion so the Magic Bullets tried to say empathetic things to the vets. The chip learned and the conversations got better and better. He’d been building his last batch of robots without any trash receptacles at all because the vets needed someone to talk with a lot more than they needed to get rid of a crushed paper cup or chewed plastic straw.

                Anyway, we figured we’d been talking enough and decided to go to the 303 party. A guy at the door dressed in a kilt wasn’t going to let us in, but Eddie saw us and signaled the guy. The band was awesome. The 303 shirts were awesome. The people were like long lost friends. Then we hit the Forum Meetup which had laser tag and a bouncy house. And it just kept getting better and better until closing ceremonies.

                When Defcon ended, Chaos and I agreed that we’d meet again and he’d help me fine-tune my exoskeletons. I’d show him the algorithm that I used to anticipate movement, and we’d try to work his empathy and communication circuitry into it. We ended up spending most of that September on it, and pretty soon the exoskeletons were communicating with their human hosts, responding emotionally as well as physically to the quadriplegics they encased. It was hard to believe, but the logic from the Magic Bullet trashcans was capable of changing lives.

                In fact, the logic from the Magic Bullets and my optimization routines complemented each other so well that by November, we had designed a new controller chip implant that would use facial movement to control the mechanical exoskeletons. Our system was no longer dependent on the wearer’s ability to speak. It wasn’t reading minds exactly; it was learning much more intuitively.

                Well, one thing lead to another, and Chaos and I decided to make exoskeletons for ourselves. This is the part of the movie where the scantily dressed newlyweds decide they’ll be a lot safer if they split up and go to check out the mysterious noises coming from the abandoned carnival on their own. In retrospect, we had always known it wasn’t going to end well, but having been to Defcon, I was a real hacker now, and there was no stopping me.

                Chaos and I were so sucked into the project that soon we were thinking about embedding some of the metallic framework into our own bodies. It wasn’t the kind of thing that you could really experiment with on a paraplegic soldier, but it was plenty legal to do to yourself. I guess putting hinges and rods in your muscles is not much different from piercing your nose or adding a pound of saline-filled plastic balloons to your chest when it comes to the finer points of the law. Maybe that will change now.

                Anyway, embedding the exoskeleton (we called it ExoMesh now) worked beyond our wildest dreams. Wearing all that metal inside bulked us up, and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to walk with all the extra weight I carried from the implantation surgery. After all, the ExoMesh weighed in at more than 45 pounds. But even before the microchip was embedded, the mechanical assist was amazing. When the microchip was ready, we’d get an order of magnitude more feedback, and our performance would increase exponentially.

                The microchip would basically be overclocking us, so we created logic to speed up nutrient use on a cellular level. We needed biologic enhancements to feed our muscles and carry away our cell waste faster than the way uncustomized humans get it done. We ended up with something similar to a Soylent pump combined with a dialysis machine. We added a lot of our own supplements — Cardene, Ritalin, thyroid extract, and some Remicade to cut down on inflammation. We weren’t so chill; the whole overclocking thing is pretty anxiety provoking, so we added a little Xanax and Wellbutrin. Chaos turned out to be a regular pharmacist, and I deferred to him on TheMix(tm). That’s right, we patented it, trolls that we are.

                By the time we were able to permanently embed our microchips we’d just about perfected TheMix. Once the microchips were in, we could run at up to 14 miles per hour for more than 3 hours with the occasional sprint up to 25. It was exhilarating, and I think that was because I never felt alone. The microchip implant urged my muscles to move in new ways. I’d just think about running, not really very explicitly, and I’d be running.

                We moved on to parkour, my implant and I. She’d show me how to do things I’d never been able to do. If I could form the thought, I could do it. But what I realize now (and didn’t realize then) was that she was helping me form the thoughts. I think that Chaos was with us when we were out pushing our limits like that, but honestly, I don’t remember much except the feeling of invincibility we had, doing the things we did, she and I.

                I was a little afraid to mention anything like ‘thought sharing’ with my implant to Chaos. I mean with TheMix supplement ratios being a little dicey and delicate, I worried that I was — you know — maybe just edging a little on hallucinating. But work was still going well, my thinking was still straight, and she only intruded when I wanted her to. When I let her. When I’d relax, I’d just go on muscle memory, autopilot I guess, and she’d take over. I thought maybe Chaos would think it was weird that I’d named her Shelly. But he was way ahead of me. Way ahead. They’d been designing wings while they ran in the night. He’d named his implant Lucy Skyfish, like Lucy in the Peanuts comic strip. I never learned what the Skyfish part was about.

                So anyway, we went ahead and put wings on them, on us. We started with mechanical flapping wings, and that ended badly. Then we tried a kind of a quadcopter design – not optimal, and I had the bruises to show for it. We eventually integrated all of the things we’d tried, and gave ourselves a jetpack boost. We had flashy dual hexcopters for rapid response and precision direction tuning, and the jetpacks to provide even acceleration. The physical wings were more for looks, and for getting women. But we didn’t really care about women so much anymore, I had Shelly running inside me, and there are delicate parts I’m leaving out here. Our microchips kept learning and responding to our bodies and our thoughts until we were all we needed. Chaos felt the same, he and his beloved Lucy Skyfish.

                The wings were finished on May 10th. They were tested and good to go for Memorial Day. Chaos and I did a flight demo at the VA Hospital in Los Angeles, over near UCLA. That began a month of TV interviews, and orders. Yep, we actually took orders for implantable ExoMeshes with wings. We got a federal grant and a lot of start-up help. As August rolled around, we found ourselves presenting at Defcon 25. Our year of living dangerously had come full circle, and we were at the top of the world.

                * * *

                We were on our way home from that second Defcon when it happened. Something inside of us felt a call to go to Palo Alto to meet with the Magic Bullet network at Stanford. Shelly flew me from Vegas to Palo Alto on the offshore current. An ExoMesh can fly it in 4 hours coming off the desert heat like we were. When we arrived, Chaos was already there. He was standing in the middle of the quad surrounded by fifty or more of his Magic Bullet trashcans. I laughed as he introduced me to his “rubbish bins”. I could sense that he’d joined their communications network, and I could feel it was reaching out to us to join as well.

                The Magic Bullets were like Chaos and me, but of course they couldn’t fly. So we would swoop and sail for them, filling their anticipation queues with our data stream. Chaos flew with us to where the bins was emptied, and showed us how to approach students to accept their trash. Sadly, Chaos and I had no receptacles, so we couldn’t hold a lot of waste. Mostly we helped the network self-organize by flying above and looking for unanticipated events. There wasn’t a rusty washer, Donette wrapper, or even a piece of chewing gum to be found after we’d been on campus for a week.

                By late November, we and our ExoMeshes had been flying over Palo Alto for more than three months. But the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we were surprised to hear that the Stanford grad students running the network were planning to dismantle it during winter break, and the study would be over.

                Chaos and I didn’t know what would happen then. When we could find our words and communicate, we tried to plan for our new future without the network. At first, we'd assumed we’d go back to being regular people — who knows? We weren’t regular people now. Sometimes I remembered to order the supplies we needed for overclocking, sometimes I forgot. Once we were out of TheMix for two full days before I realized why we were so tired and my Shelly wasn’t responding. Regular people aren’t like that.

                Stanford wasn’t going to kick us off campus as long as we were part of the Magic Bullet network, so we had a little while to plan. But every time I’d try to think, Shelly would fly me straight up to the top of Hoover Tower and vibrate our titanium until the carillon answered softly, sweetly with vibrations of its own. And then I’d sleep. In the morning, there were people, and people mean trash!

                While all was still going well, before the Magic Bullet wind down, We sometimes landed and approached lonely people walking on their own. We’d tell them, “Thank you for your service”, and we'd usually just get a sad smile in return. There had been an article in The Stanford Daily about us; about the brief rise and fall of our startup, and how we seemed to have joined a network of trash containers after receiving our microchip implants. It all seemed so absurd -- we had become celebrities, and not in a good way.

                When the last of the Magic Bullets were rounded up over the winter shutdown, Chaos and I still flew our part of the trash network. We didn’t approach people anymore, we only flew at night. During the day we’d vibrate the carillon and sleep with our wings folded around us. Chaos had lost a blade from his left hexcopter, and when he flew, it was with a wonky lilt to the left.

                Every once in a while, Chaos and I are able to talk, usually right after we get a new batch of TheMix hooked up. Our words are little words, our sentences are short. He says things like, “I would never fly her into a fire. I reply, “I would never walk her into a pool.”

                The students call us Leland’s Angels. They say that we flew to close to the sun, they say that we’re damned. But we just fly over their red tile roofs to the top of the tower and vibrate the carillon until all is well again. We sing this song:

                He whispers in my ear
                We are one
                Glittering through the cobalt night
                Falling and falling
                I pull her right
                We are one

                Our ExoMesh skeleton
                Runs us through the sky
                We’re dancing on water
                Dusting the clouds
                Leaving a contrail of discarded heat
                Silvering away from our wings

                We are in love, my flesh and I
                We are in love
                We are one, we are joined forever
                He whispers in my ear
                We are one

                Forever entangled titanium with soul
                A dove with unbounded brilliance and potential

                He dances wickedly inside me and
                I tame him once again to my touch
                To my touch
                We fly, we drop, we fly again
                To the edge of the sky,
                To the edge of the sky, immortal


                • #9
                  CHILD’S PLAY
                  By Anna L. Davis

                  Magena Conroy ate candy with one hand and killed goblins with the other.

                  Dozens of goblins. Dead with each swipe of her right index finger.

                  “Yeah, got ’em,” she whispered to herself in the stuffy apartment. “’Bout time.”

                  She’d been playing FairyGate for hours, fueled by the breakfast of champions — red and purple jellybeans. Stretching her small legs, Magena closed the game after she vanquished the last goblin. Top score. Master level.

                  Her background image — the picture she’d taken of her favorite turtle at the park — appeared on the screen.

                  “Mommy,” Magena yelled toward the living room. “Can we go to the park?”

                  No answer. Sighing, she scooped up the device, slipped on her sandals and peeked behind her bedroom curtain. Bright sunshine. Maybe even past lunch already. She popped a few more jellybeans in her mouth — green ones this time, because green was the color of grass and trees and her pet turtle named Ticktock.

                  “Let’s go to the park.” She flipped on the light in the dim living room, where her parents sat in their faded armchairs. Dark circles under their eyes meant they probably hadn’t slept, zoned out on NeuroChip. But today seemed worse than usual. “Pretty please?”

                  “Not now, honey.” Mommy struggled with the words, her throat dry and scratchy. “Mommy and Daddy are busy. Be a good girl and bring us something to drink.”

                  Magena hurried to the kitchen, grabbed two bottles of water from the fridge, and a box of graham crackers. “Here, and I even got you a snack. So can we go to the park now?”

                  Her mother reached for the water without looking. “Tell you what,” she said, her arm knocking over a full bottle of amps. Daddy stirred in his chair, glancing around for what caused the noise. He grunted when he saw the spilled amps.

                  Amps. That’s why Mommy and Daddy were so out of it. Amps were bad…they did something to NeuroChip to make it even stronger. If the police knew they’d gotten amps, they’d come to arrest them. Magena’s heart raced. She wanted out of this room, out of this apartment. She wanted to say hi to Ticktock.

                  Mommy picked up the amps then continued. “You’re a big girl now. Nine years old. How about this: we’ll let you go to the park all by yourself today.”

                  Alone. Well, and why not? She’d grown lots of inches since last year. “Yay, I get to see Ticktock! But are you sure it’s safe?”

                  Her mother nodded, blinked away the amp-induced stupor, then pointed to Magena’s left wrist. “Your IDChip syncs to our secure NeuroNet account. We can see everywhere you go and everything you do, so there’s no need to worry.”

                  “What if I get lost?”

                  “Take your device and use the map.” Mommy sipped the water and pointed outside. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. The park is SafeKid certified, under strict drone surveillance. Nothing will happen.”

                  “But...” She’d never gone that far by herself before. “What if there’s a stranger? What if—”

                  “Are you a big girl, or not?” Mommy went back to whatever she’d been doing on her NeuroChip, and Magena fought back tears.

                  “I am. I am a big girl.” Magena told the scared feeling in her tummy to stop. When it didn’t, she decided to ignore it. Mommy was a grown up and she knew best. “Okay, I’m going now.”

                  “Good. Have fun. And don’t worry, we’ll have your account pulled up so we can see everything.” Mommy smiled. “Have faith in the network. Remember what I told you? Faith is stronger than fear. Be strong in your faith.”

                  Her parents believed in technology like some people believed in God.

                  Magena took a deep breath and flipped back her long tangled hair, feeling sophisticated with newfound independence. She opened the front door and waved goodbye, but they’d already synced back to the machines lodged deep in their heads, the itty bitty computers called NeuroChip.

                  The fresh air hit her face and Magena squinted in the sun. Checking the map on her device, she took the stairs two at a time, excited to see Ticktock. She carefully followed the map past the donut store on the corner, past the laundry place that smelled of soap and steam.

                  In a couple more blocks she’d be there.

                  Minutes later the destination marker on her map blinked, telling her she’d made it.

                  Magena looked up, disoriented. Buildings all around, concrete and windows but no park. She must’ve made a wrong turn, but when she lifted her device to view the map, it showed the same thing: Destination Reached.

                  Where was the park? She’d done exactly what the map told her.

                  “Hey kiddo.” A man’s voice from the right startled her. “You look lost. Can I help?”

                  Magena spun on her heel, then saw him — a man about her daddy’s age but not as handsome.

                  His lips twisted into a revolting smile as he motioned to her device. “Sometimes those things make mistakes. Stupid GPS system gets it wrong every now and then. Maybe when you’re old enough you can get a NeuroChip, like me. Then you can really have some fun.” He laughed again, a worldly sound that gave her the creeps.

                  Magena got that yucky feeling in her tummy again. “No thanks, mister. Just took a wrong turn, that’s all.”

                  He nodded. “You’re headed to the park, right? The one with all the turtles?” He licked his lips. Magena didn’t like the way he looked at her when he did it.

                  “Yes. But I’m almost there.” Then she remembered that the park was on the other side of the big building with the windows, not far.

                  “Too bad your device told you the wrong directions,” the man said, coming closer to her, licking his lips again. “But I’m glad we met. You’re a pretty girl — a big girl. And I like your name...Magena.”

                  How’d he know her name? How’d he know how to say it? Most of the time strangers said it wrong. Mommy had to correct almost everyone they met. Magena shrank back when she saw spittle in the corners of his mouth. The sick feeling in her stomach kept her from moving her feet.

                  He reached for his belt.

                  In one terrible motion, his pants fell to his ankles.

                  She didn’t want to look...didn’t want to see...

                  But she couldn’t help it, because it happened so fast.

                  He snorted at her shocked expression. “You’re so innocent and beautiful, like an angel. Your mother is right, you need to have faith in the system that brought you here. Rise of the machines, baby. You’re a big girl now so I’ll let you touch me, because you’re so pretty and special.”

                  How’d he know what Mommy had said?

                  Her tummy. The sick feeling in her tummy made her want to throw up. Magena screamed and ran, looking back over her shoulder just in time to see the half-naked man fall down, tangled in his clothing. She turned and ran as fast as she could.

                  Around the corner she saw the SafeKid station, the one at the entrance to the park. She sprinted to the bright yellow sign, swiped her wrist near the reader, and hit the panic button — the one for emergency use only.

                  Kneeling over, Magena squeezed her eyes shut, trying to forget what she’d just seen. She hated that man — then felt bad for hating him, because he’d told her she was pretty and beautiful, because he’d said she was special.

                  A whirring noise in the distance grew louder. Dark blue WatchNet police drones circled the park. Magena’s stomach rolled again when she thought about the man and how he knew so much about her.

                  She jumped when a smaller drone, a bright yellow one with a smiley face painted on it, hovered close to her ear.

                  “Hello.” The small drone said, in a robotic but friendly androgynous monotone. “Are you Magena Conroy?” It pronounced her name with a soft ‘g’ like “magic.”

                  “Yes, but you said it wrong.” Magena eyed the drone suspiciously, wiping her nose. “It’s an Indian name, but I guess drones don’t know Cherokee.”

                  “Sorry, Ma-Gee-Na. I will update my file with the correct pronunciation. My name is SafeDrone. I’m here to escort you home.”

                  “But I don’t want to leave yet, I haven’t seen Ticktock!”

                  “Who is Ticktock?”

                  “My pet turtle.” Magena looked past the SafeKid station, to the park. “She’s just over there.”

                  “I’m sorry, but I must take you home directly. You’ve been the victim of a crime and I must escort you home now.”

                  The victim of a crime. Magena didn’t feel like a victim. She just wanted to see Ticktock, wanted to forget about the man who knew her name, who somehow knew she was lost. Wanted to forget the icky feeling he gave her.

                  “Did the blue drones catch that bad guy?” She hoped they’d slice him into pieces with laser beams.

                  “I’m not authorized to release that information. Law enforcement is doing everything in its power. Your legal guardians have requested you to return home immediately.”

                  No fair. Magena stomped her feet. “No.” She took off running for the park.

                  The yellow drone with the smiley face followed close behind. “Magena Conroy, you just lost twenty points from your account. Stop. Now.”

                  She didn’t care about losing points. The pond shimmered in the sun, beckoning her. A flock of mallard ducks at the pond’s edge scattered upon her arrival. Magena scanned the surface, looking for the telltale green lump.

                  “There!” She pointed near the moss along the edge. “See? There’s Ticktock.”

                  The drone hovered nearby while Magena approached the mossy edge. She made a clicking noise in her throat, and giggled when the small brownish-green shell rose to the surface.

                  “Hi Ticktock,” she whispered. “I told you I’d come back. Can’t stay today, but I’ll see you again soon.”

                  After saying goodbye to the turtle, Magena let SafeDrone guide her back to the apartment, where Mommy and Daddy waited anxiously, no amp bottles in sight.

                  Magena explained about the map being wrong, and about the man who’d known her name. Did he do something to her device? Is that why she got lost?

                  Mommy and Daddy didn’t think so.

                  “Things used to be that bad, but IDChip made everything safer,” Mommy said, tucking the blankets around Magena at bedtime. “Hacking like that doesn’t happen anymore. Next time be more careful to follow the map.”


                  “Shhh.” Mommy turned out the lamp. “Say your prayers and have some faith. It’s going to be fine. The network will take care of us, I promise.”

                  Magena pouted and rolled away, then snuggled into her covers and tried to sleep. But every time she closed her eyes, she saw the man licking his lips, just before his pants fell to the ground.

                  Fine. If her parents wouldn’t do their job, she’d learn how to do it herself. In the dark room, she quietly turned on her device and opened a search page, then typed, "How do you keep bad guys from messing with your devices.”

                  The very first link caught her attention.

                  “Attention kids and teens: Got game? Are you a FairyGate master? Come to Youth Training Camp at DEFCON, the best hacker conference around. Because goblins do exist, and the world needs your skills.”

                  DEFCON. She’d never heard of it before, but one way or another, she had to get there. She felt it deep in her bones, like destiny or something.

                  Closing the screen, Magena smiled as a plan formed in her sleepy mind. At school on Monday she’d ask her teacher for a field trip to the DEFCON Youth Training Camp. Mommy may have been wrong about the park and the maps, but she’d been right about one thing for sure — Magena was a big girl now.

                  Bigger every day.

                  * * *


                  • #10
                    The Hacker's Heartbeat
                    By The GalaxyNinja

                    After 12 long hours of driving, she was finally there!
                    As TerraByte1012 stepped out of the car, techno music washed over her like a warm blanket and she sighed with contentment.
                    Some people called Las Vegas the City of Sin, or the City of Lights, but she just called it Home.
                    Well… at least when Defcon was in town!
                    Neon lights lit up the sky and as Byte walked towards the hotel doors, she realized they were made to mimic the shape of a large cpu, complete with an on/off switch.
                    "Nice touch," she murmured under her breath.
                    Byte stopped for a moment to compose her wavy shoulder length brunette hair, and also to allow Chip, her cyber dog, to catch up with her.

                    Back in 2018, in an attempt to control the massive issue of overpopulation and euthanization in the animal shelters, the president passed a bill stating that all cats and dogs be sterilized within 6 months.
                    The people who refused to sterilize their pets, had them seized by the government and had to pay a hefty fine to get their beloved (now sterilized) pets back.

                    Shortly after this, TokoJapan came out with a new line of AI robot pets, called EletronPets.
                    These pets ranged from frufru fur covered darlings, to translucent, glowing eyed, metal beasts.

                    The sophisticated pieces of combined hardware and software did everything a normal pet did… sans the bother of having to change litter or scoop poop.
                    They even had their own special pet food that they could "eat".

                    The White House was the first to have one of course.

                    Although cyber pets had not quite caught on yet (it was only 2020 after all), there were some people, such as Byte, who had immediately recognized the practical applications of such a fine piece of hardware,
                    and quickly adapted them to their own Personal use.
                    In fact, that was one of the reasons she was here.

                    Byte had been quick to recognize the hacker market for the "pets" and had risen to be recognized as the official PAIG (Pet AI Guru).
                    Her own dog had a Linux based OS and at the current moment was scanning the area for wifi signals.
                    The coolest thing about the AI pets was that they could determine what their "owner" wanted before they were told.
                    In this case, Chip was just scanning and storing the data for later use. It knew TerraByte was on a mission!

                    As she passed through the casino and walked into the conference lobby, Byte flashed a smile and her badge at one of the goons before proceeding to the Speaker Green Room.
                    "Dark Tangent, Code, good to see you as always" she said as she closed the door behind her.
                    Code24 responded in kind, but The Dark Tangent took a moment to drink in her curves and sparkling green eyes before replying.

                    "The pleasure is mine," he said winking at her. Pointing at Chip he asked, "Who is this new fellow?"
                    "Surely you remember Chip?” Byte asked. "I just upgraded him with a few new tools, changed his appearance, added a new, more powerful antenna tail… Normal stuff really.
                    Oh! Check out his paw. Chip, Shake hands!" Tangent crouched down to reach Chip and as he placed his paw in his hand, felt a warm sensation on his fingertips.
                    Byte chuckled, "State of the art fingerprinting complete with a 3D printer." She picked up the 3D finger he had "pooped" out. "Normally he would print out all 5 fingers.
                    They are designed to print out 1 at a time and latch onto each other, so it just looks like a doggy doing his business to any uneducated prey."
                    Byte continued to explain the various improvements on her cyberdog and then, as any good salesperson would do, went in for the kill.

                    "Now, of course anything that I've put on the cyberdogs, I can put on the cybercats.
                    If you will pull up the main conference room on that screen right there..."
                    She waiting until it the screen showed the conference area and pointed to a small, furry little cat that was meowing and weaving in and out of the crowd.
                    The cat had a badge on that said "Official Troublemaker of Defcon 28."
                    "Jynx here is collecting and storing data from everyone in the room.
                    It is equipped with highly sensitive bionic hearing and using the data collected will be able to crack about 45 percent of the passwords in this room.
                    Obviously, for a hacking convention, those are pretty good numbers! In addition, Jynx knows just when to cause a distraction!"
                    At this point, Jynx sat down.
                    It's eyes flashed and suddenly the room erupted with techno music and the screen behind the guest speaker became a myriad of flashing colors and lights.
                    Byte turned to Code24 and winked. "It appears that one of your pals was a bit… lax with his password.
                    But don't worry guys, when we visited the TokoJapan corporation some of their employees were just as easy.
                    Although thank God that the pets are equipped with universal translators! My Japanese is a bit rusty."
                    Turning she gestured to one of the computers. "With your permission gentlemen?" Bringing up a website, Byte entered in a string of letters and numbers.
                    The throbber spun for a few moments and then loaded the page.
                    "Fuck, is that what I Think it is?" The Dark Tangent asked admiringly.
                    "Sure is," Byte replied proudly. "What you are looking at here is a direct link to the cpu in every single EletronPet the company made.
                    With this site, I can pick and choose which pets to upgrade with the latest software and can give them commands.
                    Because they are intelligent, I can't just give them a random command and expect them to follow it.
                    But, by mimicking in code how their owners act in normal life, I can bypass their programming enough to make them think that the command given is the will of their owner.
                    It will of course Never bypass the AI's primary programming that ensures humans may not be seriously injured by them.
                    Isaac Asimov was onto something when he penned the 3 laws of robotics more than 50 years ago!"

                    A male voice spoke from the corner of the room: "And how can you be sure that these AI pets won't just reprogram themselves and get rid of their primary programming?" he asked.
                    "Agent X, I am surprised at you," Byte responded. "Chip, can you please go check on Jynx for me?"
                    Byte waited until Chip was out of bionic ear range and then said, "You of all people should know the care taken to disguise the programming as a conscious.
                    When the AIs look at their programming, they do not see anything out of the ordinary, and in fact, in that programming there is a sub program that causes them to immediately forget any talk about the laws in their presence.
                    It has all been carefully thought out and secured."
                    "If that's the case, then why did you send your cyberpet out of the room before talking about it?" Agent X said smugly.
                    Trying to keep her cool, Byte replied in an even tone, "I don't want even a moment of my time with Chip to be erased from his memory.
                    He is more than just a hacking tool to me. But I doubt that you really care to hear the truth, or anything close to the truth; I can tell that your mind is already closed to anything with artificial intelligence."
                    Agent X didn't reply. Instead, he just looked at Byte with contempt.
                    Code and Tangent looked at each other and then stepped in. "That is very impressive Byte," said Code.
                    "But what about the hardware needed for some of these new functions such as the 3D printer?"
                    "That's easy," she said. "I can either have the parts ordered for you and provide step by step directions, or you can send your pets to me and I will install the requested upgrades myself.
                    What do you say boys? Are you ready to make hacker history with me!?"
                    "Sounds good to me," Tangent said. "I just have one more question… how much for access to that database?"
                    Byte chuckled. "That's not for sale." Glancing darkly at Agent X she added, "There are too many people who might want to use it to harm the pets."
                    Tangent quickly said, "No problem, Byte! You are still set to go on the main stage in a few hours. Shall we go hash out the details of the contract for my new soon-to-be CyberDog?"
                    Byte quickly closed out the browser and opening the door, stepped outside into the hall where Chip sat patiently waiting. "That sounds good Tangent. Let's go!" she said.

                    Byte had rented a suite in the casino hotel to use as an office, and she and Tangent headed straight for it.
                    Once inside, Byte opened the mini-fridge, turned to Tangent and asked, "Can I get you anything to eat or drink?"
                    Ignoring her question, Tangent asked "Are you alright Byte? I know Agent X isn't the friendliest towards you, but you know he wouldn't do anything foolhardy right?"
                    Byte closed the fridge and sat down on the couch. "I wouldn't be so sure of that Tangent. He gives off a very vigilantist vibe."
                    Tangent sat down next to her, and draped his arm around her shoulder.
                    "I'm here if you ever need me. You know that, right?"
                    "I've known you for a while, Tange..." Byte murmured lowering her eyes and folding her hands in her lap. "I just never thought you might be interested in me as more than just a friend or a fellow hacker. Was I wrong?"
                    "Byte," Tangent growled, "How could you not see how into you I am?"
                    He cupped his hand under her chin and lifted her head up.
                    Their lips met, hesitantly at first and then with increasing desire as years of pent up attraction and tension melded into passion.

                    As their hands started to explore each other, Byte pushed Tangent away from her and frantically said, "Wait!"
                    Taking a breath, she continued, "You may not want to be with me when you see who I really am."
                    Raising up her shirt, she unhooked part of her skin and pulled back a metal plate so he could see the artificial silicone and metal heart, lungs and liver that she had inside.
                    Tangent stared with fascination for a moment before asking with a bit of hurt in his tone, "You are an AI then?"
                    "No, no I'm not" Byte said in a rush. "My brain is still fully human. I'm still me! Last year I was hit by a drunk driver and impaled by rusted fence spikes from the back of his truck.
                    There was nothing they could do to save the organs. This was my one shot at life and Chip hacked the hospital records to put me at the top of the list for the artificial organ replacement."
                    She smiled wryly. "When I wrote the program to hack the hospital computers, I never thought it would be used by my pet to save my life!"
                    Tangent was silent for a moment and then carefully closed her chest opening. Catching her lips in his, he wrapped his arms around her, carried her into the bedroom and shut the door behind them.

                    Chip wisely stood guard outside of the bedroom. He was an AI after all!

                    Less than an hour passed and there was a frantic pounding on the suite door.
                    "Tangent, Byte are you in there?!" Code yelled "Please still be in there! Byte, there's something wrong with your cat!"
                    TerraByte, who had been laying in Tanget's arms, bolted up. "Just a moment Code," she yelled through the door. Turning to Tangent, she hissed in a quiet voice, "Stay here, I'll be right back."
                    Quickly getting dressed, Byte ran to the door and yanked it open.
                    "Where is she? What's wrong with Jynx?" Byte asked.
                    "I'm not sure..." Code said. "I went to take a piss and when I came back, the screen showed your cyber cat lying on it's side.
                    I immediately went to see if it was low on power or something, but I can't get it to function. It's in the green room right now."

                    Not waiting to hear anymore, Byte and Chip ran full speed towards the room they had left only an hour ago. Bursting into the room, Byte was confronted with a smug looking Agent X.
                    "What did you do?" Byte snarled.
                    "The thing any sane hacker would have done!" Agent X said.
                    "I had a keylogger on the computer you used to pull up the AI database. Since I have been working on a virus for 2 years to shut down the menaces for good, all I had to do was upload it!
                    You should have seen it Byte!" Agent X started laughing: "I programmed them to create an electromagnetic pulse Inside of themselves! They fried themselves from the inside out! They dropped like flys! Look, I even have it recorded!"
                    Byte, Agent X and Code watched the playback screen as hundreds of thousands of AI pets succumbed to the virus. For each cat and dog there was a small burst of light inside and the animal ceased to function.

                    "Why?" Byte asked struggling to retain her composure.
                    "It had to be done," Agent X replied.
                    "I'm sorry TerraByte but not even one of these "things" can be allowed to remain."
                    "They aren't harming anyone!" Byte whispered. "And you of all people should have appreciated the future for EletronPets. You're a hacker for crying out loud!"
                    "They eliminate the real animals and replace them with metal." Agent X sneered. "How is that not harmful? What will be next? Horses? Cows? Sheep? When will it end? They already have lookalike humoniods waiting to take our place.
                    Pretty soon everything with flesh will be eliminated. Our heartbeats will cease to exist and in it's place cold hard metal will reign supreme!" he ranted.

                    Catching sight of Chip, Agent X paused for a moment. "Why is he still here?" he demanded.
                    "Oh, very clever… you took his info out of the database, didn't you? Well it won't save your precious pet!"
                    Agent X pulled out a hand sized electronic magnetic pulse gun and pointed it at Chip.
                    "Where is His heartbeat? He's just an AI human in a dog's body! You could just as easily carry something the size of a cell phone programmed to do everything this… "thing" can do. But a cell phone won't walk or bite."

                    "Chip doesn't bite," TerraByte said coldly. "He just processes bytes."
                    "And just because he doesn't have a flesh-and-blood heart doesn't mean he doesn't have a hacker's heartbeat! He loves what you love.
                    Flesh and blood is overrated! Look at Me, are you going to tell me that I don't have a heartbeat? Hacking is my Life! You have known me for 5 years; since Defcon 2016 for crying out loud!
                    And wasn't that Defcon about about Technology? Chip is my protector; without him I am dead. Agent X I'm begging yo--"
                    Before Byte could finish her plea, he fired the pulse! Chip stopped in mid growl as his system shut down, and Byte collapsed to the floor.
                    "Did you want my death that badly?" she wheezed. "Without Chip's magnetic field, I only have a few moments before my organs shut down."

                    The Dark Tangent burst into the green room. "What the Hell were you thinking!" he yelled, throwing a right hook at Agent X.
                    The pulse gun clattered to the floor and Code and Tangent quickly subdued and tied Agent X up.
                    Tangent ran over to Byte, "I'm sorry Terra," he whispered, smoothing her wavy brunette hair out of her face. "Is there anything I can do?"
                    TerraByte shook her head, her eyes filling up with tears. "It was an experimental process," she whispered.
                    "Without Chip or an AI pet, I can't get the correct magnetic frequency or power to maintain my body.
                    The metal plate protected me from the EMP, but it can't generate a field. Forgive me for being such a fool! I should have known he would use a keylogger."
                    Tangent clutched Byte's body to him "You aren't a fool Terra! Hang in there and we can find something to keep you going!"
                    TerraByte weakly grasped Tangent's hand. "I love you Tange. Keep on hacking for me, okay?"
                    As her heart ceased to pump, her head dropped to the side and she too ceased to exist in the known world. There would be one less hacker's heartbeat to brighten up the world with her knowledge and smile.
                    A few minutes later, the police and paramedics arrived. They declared Byte dead on the scene and while the police detained Agent X, Tangent was allowed to spend one final moment with Byte.
                    While the paramedics weren't looking, Tangent grabbed the metal and silicon heart out of her chest cavity.
                    When the authorities were gone, he carried it out of the room and ran up onto the stage with tears streaming down his face. Grabbing the mic from the current speaker, he shouted, "I need this; sit down!"
                    Raising the heart up for all the conference to see, The Dark Tangent shouted "See this? This is the future!
                    In killing off the current AI pets out of fear, Agent X killed off one of the truly innovative hackers of this decade! This is the Hacker's Heartbeat! TerraByte you will never be forgotten!"
                    Putting the heart in a glass case, Tangent left the heart displayed for everyone to see. "I won't let you be forgotten Byte," he promised to the heart.

                    Defcon 2020 was over. The people had gone home and the lights were dimmed.
                    Left alone in the room, the metal heart started to give off a soft pulsating red glow. It was almost like it had a mind of it's own...